For Rachel Stock Spilker, a cantor at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, Saturday’s mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue was more than a horrific news story. It was personal.
Spilker grew up in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, home to the Tree of Life Congregation, where Saturday’s massacre unfolded. She taught Hebrew school there during college, and her sister lives just two blocks from it.
“I am in complete shock,” she said. “It hits really close to home, and it’s devastating.”
As Minnesota’s Jewish population reeled and mourned, Mount Zion and other synagogues in the state increased security in response to the mass shooting, the latest and gravest in a series of anti-Semitic incidents nationwide.
Spilker, 50, whose Pittsburgh relatives were not hurt, said when tragedies erupt, it is her priority to make congregants feel safe and comforted.
“It just affirms for me how much we need to be together and fight for what we know is right, which is really speaking out against hate,” she said.
It was hardly the first time the community has come together in response to a hate crime. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas recorded 28 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 and 17 so far this year, including vandalism and harassment. Last year, the Twin Cities was one of the regions targeted in a string of bomb threats called in to Jewish institutions nationwide.
The council was busy Saturday morning reaching out to Jewish leaders in the region to coordinate added security, executive director Steve Hunegs said. He called the shooting a “dastardly, murderous act.”
“We’ll all do everything possible to secure the community institutions while making sure that they are warm and welcoming places for people to go,” he said. Local synagogues will have “increased law enforcement and community vigilance” throughout the weekend, including added police patrols, Hunegs said.
Sgt. Darcy Horn said that while Minneapolis police don’t discuss the specifics of such security measures, “we do take into consideration current events and allocate our resources as necessary.”
In St. Louis Park, a Minneapolis suburb with a historically strong Jewish community, police increased patrols around schools, synagogues and the Sabes Jewish Community Center, which evacuated 500 people following a bomb threat last year. Officers were also sent to neighborhoods with a high number of Jewish residents, such as Fern Hill.
St. Louis Park Mayor Jake Spano said that while police told him there were “no credible threats” in Minnesota, it was important for people to stay vigilant. “This isn’t the first time we’ve been through this,” he said.
The Pittsburgh shooting came on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, typically observed from Friday evening to Saturday evening. Most synagogues hold multiple services on Saturday morning, including bar and bat mitzvah rituals and prayer services.
When the news broke Saturday, Hunegs and his staff began calling synagogues and law enforcement. In-person visits were made to Orthodox synagogues, he said, as Orthodox Jews do not use electronic devices on the Shabbat.
Security had already been a priority for Jewish places of worship over the past couple of years, including Temple Israel in Minneapolis, the state’s largest synagogue. Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman said it was quickly in touch with law enforcement and will have an increased security presence.
Saturday’s attack, she said, was an extreme example of anti-Semitism, and of hate crimes that other faiths experience. “We ... hope that in this country we would not see violence in response to freedom of religion, and that’s what happened today,” she said.
Mount Zion, a Reform synagogue in St. Paul and the oldest in the Upper Midwest, was celebrating a bat mitzvah when the news broke, said Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker, Rachel Spilker’s husband. There were about 200 people at the synagogue, including 60 children.
He said Mount Zion plans to have a “very visible police presence” at the synagogue Sunday for religious school and the daily service. “We are not worried about copycat situations, but we have to be [cautious],” he said.
Rachel Spilker said her attention remained on the Jewish community in both Mount Zion and in her hometown. Squirrel Hill is a very tight Jewish community, one whose connections stretch beyond Pennsylvania, she said. Sometimes when she tells people that she’s from Pittsburgh, they tell her, “You must be from Squirrel Hill.”
Although she moved to Minnesota in 1997, she still goes back frequently.
“I have a lot of very close family there,” she said. “Pittsburgh is very, very dear to my heart.”