The Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, shaken like most congregations around the country by the worst mass shooting of Jewish people in United States history, is not backing away from its sometimes controversial social justice activism.
Case in point, on Nov. 15 the temple will host “Police Accountability in Pasadena: What Needs to Change,” featuring local filmmaker James Farr and civil rights attorney and activist Skip Hickambottom talking about the violent subjugation of an unarmed African-American man by two Pasadena police officers at around this time last year.
The forum is expected to include discussion on issues such as police brutality and racial profiling, as well as departmental use-of-force policies and practices.
Along with placing increasing security around the temple, the congregation has met three times since the shooting in Pittsburgh in which a gunman killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27.
Robert Gregory Bowers, 46, was arrested and charged with several dozen federal state crimes in connection with the killings, including 11 counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death, 11 counts of use of a firearm to commit murder during and in relation to a crime of violence, four counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in bodily injury to a public safety officer, and three counts of use and discharge of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence. Prior to the shooting, Bowers allegedly said he wanted to kill Jewish people.
Using the online social network Gab, Bowers posted anti-Semitic comments against the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in which the Tree of Life congregation was a supporting participant.
Bowers was monitoring the news about Central American migrant caravans and immigrants heading into the US and posted on Gab shortly before the attack that “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
“It’s frightening for everybody,” Pasadena Jewish Temple Executive Director Beryl Strauss. “I was home. I had just gotten up and I turned the TV on and could not believe the news. I sat there teary eyed. These were elderly people who wanted to get to the synagogue early. They were faithful temple goers. It’s unbelievable someone would kill someone because they were praying. It’s incomprehensible.
“We’ve had three meetings since it happened,” said Strauss. “We are trying to heal ourselves and trying to bring our community together.”
At the Nov. 15 police reform discussion, Farr will screen his short documentary about the officer-involved incident that left Altadena resident Chris Ballew with a broken leg and a lacerated forehead following an encounter with Pasadena police Officers Zachary Lujan and Lerry Esparza.
The officers were traveling north on Fair Oaks Avenue on Nov. 9 when they saw Ballew heading south. Officers made a U-turn and followed him into an Altadena gas station and confronted him as he headed to the cashier’s window.
Police said they followed Ballew because the car he was driving had a tinted windshield and no front license plate.
After Ballew refused to be handcuffed and requested that a commanding officer be called, a scuffle ensued. Ballew was struck with fists and a police baton several times. His face was slammed into the concrete by Lujan and Esparza.
At one point, during the encounter Lujan drew his service revolver, but holstered it. Some have speculated that he did that because Esparza was too close to Ballew. The violent encounter was captured on Lujan’s body-worn camera.
The final 47 seconds were captured on a cell phone by a passerby who has never been identified.
Ballew was arrested, but no charges were filed against him. He has filed a federal lawsuit against the city, the department and those involved.
Community members were outraged by the video, and anger only grew after the officers were not immediately suspended. Lujan and Esparza patrolled the Black History Parade the following February before being reassigned to desk duty by then-Police Chief Phillip Sanchez. According to department spokesman Lt. Jason Clawson, the officers remain on desk duty.
“There’s a lot we can learn from watching the Ballew video,” Farr said. “This will provide members of our community the chance to form their own opinion.”
Temple spokesman Howard Landau said the temple was hosting the event so its members could be educated about this incident and other things happening in the African-American community.
“We care about issues in our community and one of our members saw the Farr documentary,” Landau told the Pasadena Weekly. “We don’t have any updates, but as a Jewish community we feel we owe it to ourselves to learn about the issues in the African-American community so we can sensitize ourselves to this issue.”
Strauss said it was also important to hold the forum now as the city begins interviewing candidates to become the new police chief.
The application process for that position closed in late October.
Interim Chief John Perez and former department spokesperson Lt. Phlunte Riddle have applied for the job. The new chief could be named by the end of the year.
Extra security will be provided at the event. The temple has been increasing its security since the 2016 presidential election, according to Strauss. More security was assigned at the request of a school that operates out of its building.
“Because of all the craziness, synagogues everywhere have taken a stronger approach to security,” Strauss said. “Most synagogues have armed security all the time.”
The Anti-Defamation League reported 2,000 hate incidents against Jewish people in 2017, a 57 percent increase from 2016. In California there were 268 such incidents last year, up from 211 in 2016. The totals are the second highest since 1986.
The shooting in Pittsburgh, Temple officials said, has heightened tensions in an already politically divided environment.
Prior to the shooting, Cesar Sayoc was arrested in Florida in connection with 14 pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats, including former President Barack Obama and 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Some have blamed the violence on rhetoric used by President Donald Trump. Trump and his followers have denied responsibility for the violence.
Republicans point to Democrats that have harassed Republican lawmakers publicly in restaurants and claim they first called for violence.
According to the temple’s Social Justice Committee Chair Marvin Gross, the violence and toxic racial and political atmosphere will not deter the group from its mission.
“We’re planning to go ahead 100 percent with what we planned. We think this is vitally important for the community and members of our congregation,” Gross said. “The political violence is racist, xenophonic and extremist that has come from the highest levels of our government.”
On Sunday, after the shooting, the temple canceled a “Sunday, Funday” event for new members and the social justice committee began setting up for a hastily called meeting on the heels of the shooting.
More than 400 community members, including Mayor Terry Tornek and state Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-Pasadena, spoke at the meeting Sunday about the tragedy the previous day in Pittsburgh.
Last Thursday, more than 150 people attended a rally at Memorial Park organized by Congresswoman Judy Chu, D-Pasadena. On Friday, 300 people at the local temple took part in a nationwide moment of mourning.
“We shouldn’t have to protect ourselves with guns,” Strauss said. “We need comprehensive gun control. We have to get back to love, not hate.”