Synagogue shooting hits home for many in Atlanta’s Jewish community

Within hours of the shooting deaths of 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Eric Robbins began hearing from friends and relatives back in his hometown.

By Sunday afternoon, he had identified four of the victims as people he knew. There may be more.

“It was like a punch in the stomach,” said Robbins, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. “It’s a very tight-knit community. In the time I was growing up there, I probaly drove by that synagogue no less than 5,000 times. It is literally a mile from my extended family.”

“I would never have guessed that Pittsburgh would be the place where such a heinious act would take place,” said Robbins, who just returned Saturday — the day of the massacre — from a trip to Israel. “That was not just a Jewish neighborhood. It was everyone’s neighborhood.”

On Saturday morning, a shooter opened fire at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. In addition to the slain, several others were injured; the shooting suspect surrendered to police afterward.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitism is growing. The ADL found that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. rose 57 percent in 2017 – the largest single-year increase on record and the second-highest number reported since ADL started tracking such data in 1979. The sharp rise was in part due to a significant increase in incidents in schools and on college campuses, which nearly doubled for the second year in a row.

» RELATED: The weekend's updates from metro Atlanta

Here in metro Atlanta, Robbins planned to meet with police, the FBI and private security within the next few hours and days to discuss ways to make Jewish synogagues and community organizations in the area safer. Several metro synagogues shared statements on social media on Saturday and Sunday about how security was already an integral part of what they do and that their efforts for congregations’ safety would be even more vigilant.

Robbins knows, though, that no matter how tight security is, a determined individual might find an opening to hurt others.

“We want to make sure security is as tight as it can be,” he said. “We take security very seriously. We want to assure the community that this is not going to set us back, this is only going to make us stronger. We’re not going to let hate stop us.”

Atlanta has one of the largest and more influential Jewish communities in the United States, said Robbins. He said there are more than 40 synagogues and several other Jewish organizations throughout metro Atlanta.

A decade ago, he put the Jewish population at 120,000. Today, he said, it’s much higher, although he didn’t have updated numbers.

People gather for a vigil on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018, at Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs to remember those killed a day earlier in a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue. (Photo: Channel 2 Action News)

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Vigils were held Sunday at synagogues in metro Atlanta with more vigils and memorial services planned in the days ahead.

On Sundy, sunlight streamed into Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs during an afternoon vigil, imparting a radiant glow as Rabbi Bradley G. Levenberg called for an end to gun violence and anti-Semitism in the wake of the mass shooting in Pittsburgh.

Much of Jewish tradition, Levenberg said, is formed around the written word, and finding meaning and comfort in Scripture. But a day like Saturday can rob people of the ability to find meaning and comfort.

“It’s hard to believe one can still be surprised, have our breath taken away, still be shocked by what can happen,” he said. “But today, here we are.”

Levenberg thanked the city of Sandy Springs and the city’s police department, which contacted Temple Sinai’s security team after the massacre. Outside, an armed security team directed traffic and held open doors, greeting attendees.

Condolences and statements of solidarity have poured in from people from other faith traditions, including Muslims, Sikhs and Christians.

“Our words and deeds of compassionate and true friendship must follow our lament,” Cooperative Baptist Fellowship executive coordinator Suzii Paynter, said in a statement. “We grieve for each family suffering loss and join hands in protection of houses of worship to forge bonds of solidarity to end hatred and violence. We condemn ideologies of white nationalism and white supremacy that motivate support for domestic terrorism against Jews, Muslims, African Americans, political rivals and persons of color.”

Rajwant Singh, co-founder of National Sikh Campaign and its senior adviser, said in a statement that the shooting “could have occurred at any church, temple or gurdwara. These precious lives were taken away from their loved ones and we feel for all the families of the victims.”

He said the shooting is also particularly poignant for National Sikh Campaign because it was formed in response to a similar attack at a Sikh gurdwara in 2012 when a gunman killed six Sikh men and women.

“My first reaction was sadness and outrage,” said Rabbi Yossi New, of Congregation Beth Tefillah. “I’m going from one to the other.”

In addition to working with local police departments, many synagogues here hire private security.

“Obviously the concern is, is it enough?” he said. Members of the community plan to meet with the Sandy Springs Police Department to re-evaluate security. He sent an email to the congregation the night of the shooting reaffirming the commitment to safety.

“We know hate rhetoric is very prevalent in our society,” he said. “What sparks it up from rhetoric to execution, I don’t know.”

“There’s a lot of trauma,” said Dov Wilker, regional director of the American Jewish Committee. “Everyone is really concerned. I think people are nervous. We know anti-Semitism exists. It’s something that many people have experienced, especially over the last 18 to 24 months, although no one expected anything like this to happen. People continue to be targeted and murdered, if for no other reason that than they’re Jewish.”

Wilker said he refuses to let hatred and fear win.

Is he more vigilant? Sure.

However, “nothing stops me. I’ll never give in to fear.”

For a list of metro Atlanta vigils and memorial services, go to