Targeted in the Tree of Life massacre, Dor Hadash congregants push for gun control

Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence launched this week.

A man visits a memorial outside of the Tree of Life on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018.

A man visits a memorial outside of the Tree of Life on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018.

Cara Owsley / USA TODAY Network

Months after they were targeted in what became the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history, members of the Dor Hadash congregation have launched an advocacy group that will push for gun safety initiatives at the local, state and national level.

The newly formed group, Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence, was formed by members of the socially progressive congregation that was one of three with members present during the Oct. 27 massacre at Tree of Life synagogue.

The attack left 11 dead, six injured and has led to federal hate crimes charges against the accused gunman, 46-year-old Robert Bowers of Baldwin Borough. Dor Hadash member Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, a widely regarded physician, was killed, and member Dan Leger was seriously wounded.

“Needless to say for people who lived through the Tree of Life shooting, banning assault rifles is really high on our list. There is no place for assault rifles in civilian hands,” Carolyn Ban, a Dor Hadash congregant and founding member of Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence, told The Incline by phone on Wednesday.

Ban said the advocacy group is committed to advancing gun reforms, some of which are widely supported by the public and all of which have remained stuck in the political morass. In doing so, they join a growing gun safety movement born of trauma and fueled by survivors.

“Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence has grown out of our grief and our resolve to do all we can to prevent future mass murders and to reduce the epidemic of gun violence in our country,” reads a mission statement on the homepage of the group’s new website. “We stand committed to work for the passage and enforcement of sensible gun policies at the local, state, and national level, partnering especially with those working in the communities that are most affected.”

The flowers outside Tree of Life on Wed. Nov. 14

The flowers outside Tree of Life on Wed. Nov. 14

mj slaby / the incline

Three decisions

Dor Hadash is the most socially progressive of the three congregations impacted by the shooting at Tree of Life. It is also no stranger to activism.

As a reconstructionist congregation, Dor Hadash supports LGBT rights and gender equality; its members advocate openly for social justice. Dor Hadash has no rabbi. Ban refers to it as a “DIY congregation.”

“Reconstructionism respects the traditions of Judaism, but our founder said traditions have a voice but not a veto,” Ban explained.

It was Dor Hadash’s desire to help immigrants and refugees, part of this socially conscious approach to works of faith, that led the congregation to join the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society or HIAS network over a year ago. And it was that involvement that federal authorities say led Bowers to target the Tree of Life synagogue on the morning of Oct. 27.

According to a superseding federal indictment against Bowers announced this week, minutes before entering the synagogue, Bowers wrote on the fringe social media network, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Bowers also posted about HIAS weeks earlier, federal authorities say.

Ban, a Dor Hadash congregant for 20 years, also serves as chair of the congregation’s social-action committee, explaining, “We are the folks who said to the congregation, ‘We should join HIAS.'”

Ban said she found out the day of the shooting that Dor Hadash’s involvement with HIAS likely led Bowers to target them and Tree of Life. She was not present at the synagogue during the massacre and first learned of it from a Muslim friend in one of her interfaith discussion groups.

“What’s happening at Dor Hadash?” the friend wrote in an email. “There is an active shooter alert in the neighborhood.” Hours later, with details of the shooting beginning to emerge, Ban learned of the alleged HIAS connection.

“It was definitely a shock,” Ban recalled, her voice cracking with emotion. “And the social-action committee met pretty quickly after the tragedy to commiserate, and we made three decisions.”

Ban listed them: “The first was that we recommit ourselves to our work supporting immigrants and refugees. The second was that we recommit ourselves to our partnership with HIAS, which is a wonderful organization. And third, we decided that one of our top priorities going forward would be working for legislation to reduce gun violence. And all of that has had the support from my board and the whole [Dor Hadash] congregation.” Ban calls social action a core value and core function of Dor Hadash.

Members of the other two congregations that met at Tree of Life have also joined the Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence group, Ban said. As of Thursday, individuals outside the three congregations had joined, too.

But there are some in the congregations who hesitate to be so politically active and outspoken after the massacre for fear of again becoming a target.

“After the event people were very afraid of some kind of a copycat crime,” Ban said. “Now that we’re three months out, it’s less of an issue. But, yes, people are concerned about it, and they’re right to be concerned.”

Ban continued: “I would have said before that worrying about somebody attacking us was a totally preposterous idea. We now know that’s not true and I personally worry about it; my name is out there. But it won’t deter me.”

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at an anti-gun violence rally in the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019.

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at an anti-gun violence rally in the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019.


Into the fray

This past Tuesday, Ban and four other Dor Hadash congregants, all members of the newly formed advocacy group, stood with hundreds of gun safety advocates and Gov. Tom Wolf at an anti-gun violence rally inside the state Capitol building. Wolf used the opportunity to urge Pennsylvania lawmakers to toughen Pennsylvania’s gun laws, pointing to shootings like that at Tree of Life as both unacceptable in a civilized society and potentially preventable with the right measures in place.

Ban and the other members of Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence see themselves as messengers and organizers in this fight, and maybe even catalysts.

“It’s very important for legislators across the state to understand that this is an issue their constituents care about,” Ban explained. “It’s important for us as a group of people who have been through mass murder and directly affected by it to stand up and say ‘It’s enough already.’ But it’s not just us. People all across the state say it’s long past due.”

A Franklin & Marshall College Poll conducted in March of 2017 found support for gun control among Pennsylvanians to be at an all-time high.

The Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence group also supports Pittsburgh’s push for new local-level gun controls, which city legislators are pursuing in response to the shootings at Tree of Life but also with an eye on preventing all forms of gun violence in the city, they say. The legislation, which has prompted a large gun-rights protest on the steps of City Hall and threats of legal action and physical violence, includes a proposed local ban on semi-automatic firearms or “assault weapons,” a proposed local ban on bump stocks and large-capacity magazines, and would allow courts to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person considered an “extreme risk” for committing gun violence.

Ban, who is the former dean at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and a current professor emerita, was the first to speak at a public hearing on the proposed legislation held last week before members of Pittsburgh City Council. In emotional testimony, Ban pointed to mass shootings but also more frequently overlooked forms of gun violence — individual homicides and suicides — as testaments to the need for gun reform now.

“It is time for the U.S. to get serious about reducing gun violence,” Ban said.

She introduced herself to council members as a Dor Hadash congregant and member of the new Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence group.

Carolyn Ban, a Dor Hadash congregant, speaks at the Pittsburgh public hearing on proposed gun legislation.

Carolyn Ban, a Dor Hadash congregant, speaks at the Pittsburgh public hearing on proposed gun legislation.

Colin Deppen / The Incline

“Forcing the conversation” 

With the Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence group’s website officially launched at the beginning of this week, Ban said they’ll start getting out in public and speaking and writing and doing interviews to “let people across this commonwealth and country know they can join this organization.”

And while there’s hope among some for state action in Pennsylvania, there’s also a realization that the odds are long for the most potent forms gun control with a Republican-controlled Congress in Harrisburg.

In an email to The Incline, Gov. Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott said groups like Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence play a vital role in the legislative process around issues such as this one, adding, “Grassroots groups have been at the forefront of creating significant changes in recent years in Pennsylvania, including legalizing medical marijuana, the clean slate bill and our first gun safety bill in decades.”

Abbott said Wolf made his inaugural address “a call to action for individuals and groups like this.”

State Rep. Dan Frankel, a Democrat from Squirrel Hill and a vocal proponent for gun reform in Harrisburg, added by email, “The most powerful voices in the gun policy debate are those of the ever-growing community of victims whose lives have been upended by gun violence. For decades, the gun lobby has found success in drowning out these desperate calls for reasonable regulations, but I believe that era is coming to an end. I have gratitude and admiration for the members of Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence, who are willing to suffer through the retelling of their horrific story in order to save lives. This group, like the young people from Parkland, is forcing the conversation. If Pennsylvania lawmakers don’t listen, I suspect that Pennsylvania voters will.”

Ban stresses that her group isn’t partisan. She’s uncomfortable with the phrase “gun control,” understanding it remains a loaded term that emboldens opponents and often hampers dialogue.

But while Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence isn’t partisan, much of the debate around this issue in Harrisburg is.

“We know the GOP controls both houses, but we also know the GOP lost a lot of seats in this last election and one of the reasons why is the issue of gun violence,” Ban said.

“At the state level I think that politically it makes sense for Republicans to recognize that over 90 percent of the population in the U.S. supports universal background checks and the majority of gun owners support it, too. That to me is one of the obvious places to move quickly.”

At Tuesday’s rally in Harrisburg, one organized by CeaseFirePA and attended by the governor, advocates touted recent momentum around the issue here, with Pennsylvania’s first gun-related anti-violence legislation in more than a decade passed by the legislature and signed into law last year. That law, Act 79, works to keep firearms away from domestic abusers.

And there are other proposals on the horizon, including one that would expand background checks on firearms in Pennsylvania and end the so-called “gun show loophole” here, and another statewide measure that would allow for the immediate seizure of firearms from someone the courts find to be an “extreme risk” for committing gun violence, the Associated Press reports.

The success of these proposals, however, is far from guaranteed.

There is also movement at the federal level, where Democrats, less than a week after retaking the House, recently unveiled a bill to expand background checks to nearly all firearms purchases. It faces a steep climb in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate.

Advocates are determined, though, to influence the political processes and surrounding debates by driving home their message and their personal connections to gun trauma — the goal being to convey an urgent and present need for long-delayed reforms.

“Different groups have different priorities to start with,” Ban said of the movement.

But while Ban recognizes the obstacles therein, she said she and members of the Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence are both encouraged and determined.