Rebecca Shiloff’s parents were concerned about her welfare this summer while she spent two months in Israel as a volunteer medic for Magen David Adom.
The 19-year-old El Paso, Texas, native returned from Jerusalem last week and is set to begin her second year at Oberlin College. Her parents were relieved she was back.
“I could see in my parents’ eyes, they let out a breath, and they were like, ‘she’s safe, she’s back in the States,’” she said.
The very next morning, on Aug. 3, a mass shooting that left 22 dead and more than 24 injured turned an El Paso Walmart into a crime scene.
“To have something happen here – when they were worried about something happening in Israel – was really saddening, disheartening,” she said. “The whole community has really been affected.”
At 1 a.m. Aug. 4, there was another shooting that left nine dead and 27 injured at Ned Peppers Bar in Dayton’s Oregon District.
Shiloff said Aug. 5 people were lined up around the block at a blood bank down the street from her home and that billboards read “El Paso strong,” with the letters “so” in both “El Paso” and “strong” in the same color.
“It’s really dramatically changed, I think,” she said of the mood in El Paso. “Just driving, there’s less people on the roads. Yesterday, I went to a store, and when I left, instead of people saying ‘have a nice day,’ instead they said ‘stay safe.’ For me, that really hit because that’s something you should never have to tell someone.”
In El Paso, Patrick Crusius, 21, of Allen, Texas, was charged with capital murder. An interfaith vigil was held in El Paso Aug. 4.
Dayton ‘still in shock’
Dayton gunman Connor Betts, 24, was shot and killed by Dayton police at Ned Peppers Bar at about 1 a.m. Aug. 4. A vigil was held in Dayton later that day. There, 10 doves were released: one for each of the victims and a 10th for the 27 injured. A vigil was also held the evening of Aug. 4 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.
“As the investigation continues, we will keep you informed regarding what we as a community can do to help the families, friends and loved ones of those killed and injured, and to help the city heal,” an Aug. 4 statement from the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton read. “Our hearts go out to everyone who has been affected by this morning’s events.”
In Dayton, Jews heard the gunshots from their homes.
“This wasn’t targeted at the Jewish community, of course,” said Rabbi Ari Ballaban, assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Or in south Dayton. “So, in one sense it’s a little bit more remote than, for instance, the shooting in Pittsburgh last October. But on the other hand, it’s in our backyard, so it feels much more immediate.
“Dayton’s a small city, geographically. This wasn’t so far for anyone. There are people in the Jewish community who go to places in this district where the shooting took place.”
On Aug. 5, Ballaban described the mood in Dayton as “raw.”
“I think people are still kind of in shock as of right now,” he said.
While not much is known about Betts, a former girlfriend told NBC’s “Today” that on one date he went with her to shoot a rifle and often talked about mass murders.
Adelia Johnson also told “Today” that “on their first date, he showed her body camera video from a mass shooting at a synagogue.”
President Donald Trump told the nation Aug. 5 the internet has provided “a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts.”
Trump called the shooters “monsters.”
“Hate has no place in America,” he said, adding he would introduce legislation to impose the death penalty on those convicted of hate crimes. “Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart and devours the soul. We have asked the FBI to identify all further resources they need to investigate and disrupt hate crimes and domestic terrorism – whatever they need.”
He said he would direct the Department of Justice to identify red flags, early warning signs of those intending to do mass violence.
“Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun,” Trump said, using language that echoes National Rifle Association rhetoric. He called for bipartisanship.
On Aug. 6, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine called for a slew of legislative reforms and increased mental health funding. He called for background checks prior to gun sales, safety protection orders to remove guns from those thought to pose a danger to themselves or others, and increased penalties for those who use guns in the commission of a crime and those involved in illegal gun sales.
“Gun violence doesn’t just take the form of mass shootings, people are victims every day in Ohio and across the country,” DeWine said, according to a news release. “I believe that this is both a public safety issue and an individual wellness issue – we must address both sides to help solve the problem. It’s time to do something, and that is exactly what we are going to do.”
Rabbi Michael Ungar, formerly the senior rabbi at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus and currently the leader at Beth El-The Heights Synagogue in Cleveland Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, has family in both El Paso and Dayton. He blogged about the shootings, forcefully arguing for gun control.
In an interview with the Columbus Jewish News, he called DeWine’s proposals, “a step in the right direction.”
“It’s fine for him to propose this, but it’s got to get through the statehouse, which has for the last several years done nothing but expand access to guns,” Ungar said.
Ungar also said he was “troubled” by the reference to mental illness.
Securing the Jewish community
Eric Fingerhut, incoming CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, was in Israel Aug. 6 when he said changing policies could make a difference.
“First of all, everybody here is also grieving for the communities in Ohio and Texas,” said Fingerhut, a former Central Ohio resident. “We also know that there are strategies and techniques and tactics of law enforcement and there are government policies that can make a difference because Israel lives in a constant environment where terrorist attacks, like what we experienced in Dayton and El Paso, can occur.”
Michael Masters, national director and CEO of Secure Community Network, the national homeland security initiative of the JFNA, offered a broader perspective on the shootings.
“There were 30 mass attacks, according to the FBI, in 2017,” he said. “There were 27 in 2018. By all accounts, certainly we’ll hope that the last week is an outlier, certainly the last 48 hours. But if we maintain this pace, we will eclipse both of those numbers this year.”
He said the environment has become particularly complex.
“That reality, amidst an increase in hate crimes directed against the Jewish community and anti-Semitic incidents to include the deadly attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway in the last year, (is) a call to action for our community that we must work to be as prepared as possible,” he said. “The indicators that we often get for these individuals, if there are any, there is not enough time between when those (indicators) become readily apparent and when the incidents occur for us to identify the individuals and adequately prevent the attack.”
Less than 30 minutes elapsed between the time the shooters made postings on social media about their intentions and the attacks of Pittsburgh, Poway and El Paso.
“I think that really forces us to recognize that we must be prepared, we must take training and physical security seriously – both because our institutions are Jewish, which means they are on a threatened picture, but just because they are community institutions,” he said. “Whether you are at a garlic festival in Gilroy, Calif., or a Walmart (in) El Paso, a concert, a movie theater, a hotel (or) a school, this is the reality of these events on average: one less than every two weeks in the United States.
“They’re not only increasing in number, they’re actually increasing in lethality, according to the FBI,” Masters said, adding that only in 25% of the cases was the FBI able to confirm a diagnosis of mental illness in the shooters. “Eighty-six percent either purchased the gun legally, already owned the gun or borrowed the weapon from someone.”
Masters spoke of the need for consistent training, comparing the response to active shooters to that of a fire drill.
“What we have to do is guarantee that, as a community, we are keeping our community strong and empowered,” he said. “We will not choose the time and place when one of these individuals tries to enter into or attack our facilities. We can choose our preparation. And in doing that, what we can ensure is that our community, our fellow Jews, continue to walk into our communities because they feel safe. They believe that they’re secure and they have done the training to be empowered.”