It was a visit to the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh last year that inspired Franklin County Treasurer Pam Prodan to put a sign up on her desk in the county courthouse.

“You are welcome here,” the sign reads, in nine different languages.

Prodan, whose brother-in-law and sister-in-law live in the Pittsburgh neighborhood, visited the area last August with her husband, Conrad Heeschen, and was struck by the beautiful architecture, the gardens and an art gallery and college in the neighborhood.

She was also struck by the frequency of signs in windows and on front yards advocating for peace and inclusivity. When she returned to Maine, Prodan printed out a sign hearkening to the messages she saw at Squirrel Hill.

“It made me say, ‘I don’t have to be silent about all the negativity and hate.’ I can say something,” Prodan said. “Right next to my desk is a chair, and anyone who comes in and has to wait, right next to them is this little sign that says, ‘You are welcome here.’ I felt I wanted to say something like that after being in Squirrel Hill and walking around in that neighborhood.”

The welcoming atmosphere of the neighborhood, along with her family ties, contributed to the shock that hit Prodan Saturday when she learned of a shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

The shooting, which took place during Saturday morning Sabbath services, killed 11 people and wounded six in the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of the U.S. The alleged gunman, Robert D. Bowers, is facing 29 charges of violence and firearms offenses, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Pamela Prodon on Monday takes a moment to gather her thoughts while talking about the killing of 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday. Prodon has two in-laws that live four doors away from the Synagogue. Staff photo by David Leaming

The shooting has spurred reaction and condemnation from members of the Jewish community and supporters around the country, including in central Maine.

“It really affects not just the people and the families who were the subject of the attack, but the whole neighborhood and people who know the neighborhood, like myself,” said Prodan, whose family lives four doors away from the Tree of Life on Wilkins Avenue, although they were not home Saturday when the shooting took place.

In Waterville, Rabbi Rachel Isaacs of Beth Israel Congregation, who also is a professor and director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life at Colby College, said an open shabbat service will be held at the Main Street synagogue from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and all are welcome to attend.

“We’re going to have space and time to memorialize those who were murdered in Pittsburgh, but we will do it in the context of a larger and traditional shabbat service,” Isaacs said.

“I feel at home in Waterville. We mourn the murder of our brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh, but we also want to open our doors to our community so people see us standing proud and strong and confidently in our Judaism, even in the face of this. Everyone’s welcome.”

Isaacs said Hillel, the Jewish student organization at Colby, hosted a memorial Sunday night at the Pugh Center on campus led by Rabbi Erica Asch of Temple Beth El in Augusta.

Asch, who also serves as the Jewish Chaplain at Colby, said about 150 students and members of the Colby community attended the Sunday gathering.

The Augusta temple, located at 3 Woodlawn St., will also be inviting the community to shabbat services at 7 p.m. Friday in an effort similar to what the Waterville synagogue is doing.

“In talking with our board, we really feel one way to combat hatred and bigotry is through knowledge and relationship building,” Asch said. “We are inviting people into our home, which is a great value in the Jewish tradition, to experience what our worship looks like and talk to people afterward.”

SPEAKING OUT

Building relationships is very important, Asch said, and her temple has been very heartened by the community’s having reached out to offer support, because people are “shaken and very upset by this.”

“I think that it’s obviously very tragic, and it’s very important for us to name the anti-semitism that exists in this country and be able to stand against it,” she said.

Rabbi Erica Asch checks her position in the text as she rolls a Torah scroll on Sept. 23, 2014, in preparation for Rosh Hashanah services at Temple Beth El in Augusta. In response to the killing of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg on Saturday, Asch said, “I think that it’s obviously very tragic, and it’s very important for us to name the anti-semitism that exists in this country and be able to stand against it.” Staff file photo by Joe Phelan

Jonathan Cohen, a member of the Beth Israel congregation who lives in Farmington, heard about the shooting Saturday after attending services at the Waterville synagogue. He said he doesn’t normally use the internet on the Sabbath, but wanted to connect Saturday to check the weather since the forecast was bad.

“I was dismayed this kind of thing would happen in America,” said Cohen, a professor of philosophy at the University of Maine at Farmington. “It’s similar to stuff that has happened in Europe or Israel, but it’s pretty distressing to see this happen in America.”

Once, in the mid-1990s, someone threw an object through the window of Cohen’s house in Farmington during Hanukkah to smash a menorah, but he said generally that kind of hate is rare and he usually feels safe practicing his faith in Maine.

“They never caught the person, but the expressions of support we received from the community were all heart-warming,” he said. “All the local ministers said there’s no kind of room for that hate in Farmington. We got a lot of messages of support that I feel more than counterbalanced what happened.”

Cohen is not on social media, but said he has heard others concerned about a rise in anti-Semitism, particularly online.

“I think Trump’s election sort of emboldened people with these attitudes,” he said. “Before they were keeping it under wraps saying, ‘People don’t support this.’ Now, they feel there’s approval or a license to express these views or even act on them. The tone has changed, and I think it’s emboldened a lot of people to act on these views.”

Cohen also took issue with the president’s statement that the Pittsburgh synagogue should have had an armed guard inside and that would have changed the outcome of the shooting.

“I don’t really want to live in that kind of society,” he said. “I want to live in a peaceful society that doesn’t have the expectation of violence. Leaders should be teaching peace, so I’m kind of disappointed that was his reaction and some people’s reaction.”

Asch — noting that media reports have indicated the alleged shooter, Robert Bowers, made references to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Jewish organization known for its work helping refugees resettle in the United States, and yelled during the attack about wanting to kill Jews — said central Maine Jews will continue to help support immigrants.

“We’ll continue doing that work, welcoming people, and we will not allow hatred to keep us from making sure immigrants and refugees have a safe home in this country,” she said.

Asch’s husband, Chris Myers-Asch, a leader of Capital Area New Mainers, a group that helps immigrants who have resettled in the Augusta area, confirmed members of the local Muslim community, many of whom are immigrants, plan to march in solidarity with the Jewish community. The event will take place at 3 p.m. Tuesday at Mainly Groceries on Northern Avenue in Augusta, as part of a gathering already planned in commemoration of Arba’een, a holiday commemorating the death of Imam Husayn.

David Greenham, associate director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine on the campus of the University of Maine at Augusta, said the Pittsburgh attack is another horrifying example of someone targeting an individual group of people, in this case Jews, and gun violence.

Greenham said he doesn’t feel safe anywhere he goes in today’s society, adding that it’s not a coincidence groups that are seeing violence against them are also the same groups being called out by some politicians.

“I think when you speak out about issues, and we speak out on a lot of issues, you recognize sometimes people want to respond with violence,” Greenham said. “In America, if you’re in a public place, you ought to know there’s a chance something could happen. Every single person in this country is at risk.

“This version of America that we have today, is not an America where you can feel safe standing on the sidelines and not wanting to get involved,” he added. “The ideal solution to the challenges we all feel after one of these incidents occurs, is to vote. Voting is the best way to respond to these kinds of acts of terror.”

INTERFAITH EFFORT

For Prodan, the Franklin County treasurer, she said she was grateful her family was safe, though it didn’t keep her from worrying on Monday. Her family isn’t Jewish, but she said she’s been reading books about the history of the Nazi movement and has struggled to understand how it arose and led to the Holocaust.

And she keeps thinking about the welcoming and friendly signs in Squirrel Hill and some of the elderly people who died Saturday, including a 97-year-old woman and a couple in their 80s.

“(My brother-in-law) told Conrad he remembered that on days when they were worshiping, he would walk by and see elderly people getting out of cars to go to the synagogue, and they needed help getting from their car to the synagogue because they’re so elderly,” Prodan said. “He said they were basically sitting ducks in there.”

On Monday, Temple Beth El-Augusta’s website had links listed on it where users could seek help coping with the shooting.

Asch said an Augusta Police officer came by to check in on a Sunday gathering at Temple Beth El, at their request in response to the Pittsburgh incident. The Augusta temple’s board of trustees has invited the broader community to come to Temple Beth El’s regularly scheduled Friday night services.

“We believe we can help combat hatred and bigotry through knowledge and relationship building,” the trustees wrote in a statement posted on the temple’s Facebook page. “Rabbi Asch will discuss the tragedy in Pittsburgh and we will remember those who died as part of our regular service.”

The services, open to anyone who wants to show support, are scheduled for 7 p.m. at Temple Beth-El-Augusta on Woodlawn Street.

Asch said she’s already heard from leaders of the Muslim community and Christian church leaders who’ve reached out to her, on behalf of their communities, to offer their support and ask what they could do to be helpful.

“It felt really wonderful,” said Asch when asked how she felt about that support. “The last several years in central Maine we’ve built a strong interfaith effort together. Relationships are so important.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

 

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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