At 9:57 on Saturday morning, gunshots shattered the peace of Tree of Life Synagogue in a quiet section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Within minutes, in one of the oldest houses of worship in the United States, 11 people would be dead including a 97-year-old man who, determined to thank God for life, made it to the temple where he would die as he prayed. Police rushed into the line of fire. Four were injured as they captured and arrested 46-year-old Robert Bowers, a man poisoned by hate and armed with three Glock handguns and an AR-15 assault rifle. “I just want to kill Jews,” he screamed.
The massacre – the largest number of Jews killed in a hate crime mass murder in the US in modern history – touched off emotional reaction around the globe. A sombre US President Donald Trump on the campaign trail two weeks before mid-term elections assumed a composure unlike any we have seen from him. “This wicked act of mass murder is pure evil,” he declared, ordering flags at all federal buildings, including American embassies around the world, to be flown at half-mast.
What few of us knew, even those of us in Nassau, is that at the same time the crazed Robert Bowers was unloading his hate on strangers he never met and whose lives he ended in a torrent of fire, there was a new beginning of life in The Bahamas.
Three minutes after the mayhem began in Pittsburgh, as the massacre was beginning to send shockwaves around the globe, a small synagogue opened in Nassau.
It was the first time that Jews in The Bahamas had a place to call home in more than a decade after renting meeting space in hotels for celebrations, holidays and events. It was the first time the more than two dozen Jewish children who attend what we call Sunday school or are learning Hebrew to prepare for the rituals that will mark their reaching maturity would have a place of their own instead of meeting at someone’s home.
The service in the new, small meeting space, we are told, was filled with joy and celebration. It was topped off with a light lunch as those who broke bread together still had no idea of what had gone on in Pittsburgh because, it being a Sabbath, their phones were off.
Later, they would hear of the madness, the sadness, the loss of life. They would know that as they marked a new beginning, others would be trying to find a way to keep going.
“This tragedy has touched a chord in the hearts of all people regardless of religion and backgrounds as was evident by the moving amount of emails, calls of support and condolences that were sent to myself and my community,” Rabbi Sholom Bluming told this newspaper.
“No words can describe the horror and evil that occurred. Jews who gathered to pray and celebrate the Sabbath were killed for no reason other than the fact that they were Jewish. Our hearts are broken and our spirit is shattered. Yet, it is how we respond to such horrific moments that define who we are as people.”
We are, he said, a people of “love, peace and kindness”.
And he spoke to this paper, and will to others, for one reason – to let the people of The Bahamas know the special role The Bahamas plays in so many lives, those who were born here and those who made their home here.
“The Bahamas is a beautiful place. More importantly, Bahamians are a beautiful people, very respectful of people and ideas. What makes what happened in Pittsburgh even more unsettling is that it happened in a country founded on the search for freedom of religion and the right to worship as people choose. We are so fortunate to be in this place where the community responds with such interest, where it is not about what church or temple or mosque you go to but what you are inside that matters.”
Bahamians have embraced the Jewish community as evidenced by more than 2,400 people showing up for a talk with Holocaust survivor Eva Schloss, half-sister of Anne Frank, the largest crowd ever to turn out for an event of its kind at Melia Nassau Beach Resort. It took nearly an hour to fill the room with additional chairs so the lines of people could be seated.
It should not be surprising that the rabbi who has made himself such a part of the religious and civic community received messages of sympathy, hope and respect from everywhere.
One call, in particular, touched him unexpectedly.
It was from a man who attended the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and was in Nassau on Saturday. He knew people who died. These were not strangers. They were people he worshipped with and celebrated with as children were born or cried with when a loved one was buried.
“This is a wake-up call to all who believe in freedom of religion,” the rabbi said. “We must learn from this. The world we live in is a very dangerous place but together we must displace hatred with love, darkness with light, divisiveness with unity.”
We must also learn another lesson in The Bahamas. Guns kill. And guns in the wrong hands kill senselessly. We must continue to enforce strict gun control laws. Cold and callous as it seems in the face of tragedy when compassion and streaming tears are the style of dress of the day, the reality is the only thing that will help to keep us safe is getting guns off the streets and out of the hands of criminals and those to whom a massacre is just another means to an end.
Long after the words of sympathy have faded, the determination to ban unlicenced handguns and to control who has the right to own a gun will be the measure of how we as a society strive to keep our neighbours, no matter their religion, safe.