Shared sadness

Chicoans unite at local synagogue after Pittsburgh shooting

David Halimi, co-president of Congregation Beth Israel, owns Cafe Petra downtown with Mohammed Shabbar, a leader at the Chico Islamic Center.

David Halimi, co-president of Congregation Beth Israel, owns Cafe Petra downtown with Mohammed Shabbar, a leader at the Chico Islamic Center.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Like many Chicoans, David Halimi first heard of the mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday morning (Oct. 27) from media accounts. Distance didn’t diminish its impact. For the co-president of Chico’s synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel (CBI), and a man deeply connected to his faith, the tragedy hit home.

“It was a sad day for humanity,” he told the CN&R Tuesday (Oct. 30). “Of course, when tragedies of this sort happen, it’s not a Jewish tragedy, it’s not a black tragedy, it’s not a Muslim tragedy—it’s a tragedy for humans all over the world. It was closer to home in terms of the Jewish community, but any time you have any innocent people’s lives taken for no reason at all, it gives you pause for reflection on where we’re going as a society.”

That morning, a gunman charged into the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue during sabbath services, shouting that all Jews must die, and killed 11 people. Suspect Robert Bowers appeared in court Tuesday and has a hearing set for today (Nov. 1).

Halimi said he received a call “right away” Saturday morning from Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien, who offered support and dispatched officers to meet with Rabbi Sara Abrams at CBI. O’Brien also spoke at a candlelight vigil the synagogue hosted Sunday night, which 60 attended.

“I was very touched by that personal attention to the Jewish community’s need,” Halimi said. “He comforted everyone [at the vigil] and assured everyone that he’s there and he promises to keep us safe—which is what people really needed to hear.”

As O’Brien spoke, two guards secured the synagogue entrance and police made more frequent patrols. Abrams acknowledged in a letter to the community that “[a]lthough we have no reason to believe that we are in danger in Chico, CBI[’s] security committee and board will be brainstorming ways we can make our building more secure.”

George Gold also attended the vigil. A longtime Butte County resident and social activist, he’s part of myriad groups, including Atheists of Butte County. He’s also the son of Holocaust survivors.

“What struck me as I looked around the room, of all the social activists … here in Chico, I saw two people I know,” he said. “And one was the chief of police.”

Shelby Chase feels a similar disconnect. A new business owner in Chico, handling human resources and payroll for other companies, Chase grew up in Red Bluff before attending Chico State. She experienced overt discrimination in her hometown, “where anti-Semitism was more broadcasted; since I came to Chico, I feel it’s just not talked about at all.”

Chase, who didn’t attend the vigil, is active in social causes, like Gold. She’s board chair of Chico’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (though stressed she spoke with the CN&R on her own behalf, not for ACLU Chico).

“I don’t know why the progressive community is so active in talking about other oppressed communities,” she said, “but I’ve never once heard them talk about oppression in the Jewish community.

“Some people are so shocked that the shooting happened,” Chase added. “I think that there are a lot more anti-Semitic people out there than we know. They just don’t identify themselves—and I prefer that they do.”

Both Chase and Gold said they feel less safe since Saturday’s shootings. Halimi said otherwise. He feels reassurance from Chico’s response. Along with the police, clergy from various houses of worship came Sunday “to show their solidarity.”

Halimi also pointed to the Muslim community in Pittsburgh raising money for victims and the synagogue. His friend and business partner Mohammed Shabbar, chef-owner of Cafe Petra, is as involved at the Chico Islamic Center as Halimi is at CBI.

“His reaction I don’t think was any different than if it had happened to 11 Muslims,” Halimi said. “He shared in the sadness just as much.

“The ironic thing,” he added, “is when the worst of humanity comes out, many times more than that the best of humanity comes out.”