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On February 19, 1968, the children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, hosted by Fred Rogers, was broadcasted on national US television for the first time (Bianculli). In the show, Mister Rogers teaches children how to navigate the social world by emphasizing the importance of honesty, friendliness, and many other admirable traits. As a recent video on ABC News put it, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was “a fictional place that honored humanity in all of its hues. In all of its manifestations.” Many adults today remember watching the sweet-hearted Fred Rogers interact so caringly with the other citizens in his perfect little neighborhood; regardless of ethnicity, profession, age, sex, or any other factor, Mister Rogers was sure to be kindhearted toward every individual. 

A particularly relevant example of this honorable philosophy took place when Rogers challenged racial stereotypes by asking François Clemmons to join him on the show as Officer Clemmons—one of the first recurring black characters on a children’s TV show. In an interview, Clemmons relates his very shocked reaction to Rogers’ request: “Fred, are you sure? Do you know what policemen represent in the community where I was raised?” Clemmons then asserts that Rogers convinced him to the role by stressing the impact it would have on children viewing the show. “To say that he didn’t know what he was doing or that he accidentally stumbled into integration or talking about racism or sexism—that’s not Mister Rogers. It was well planned and well thought-out, and I think it was very impactful” (Great Big Story). Sure enough, with systemic racism and racial tension once again in the limelight after the tragic murder of George Floyd, memorable clips of Mister Rogers’ relationship with Officer Clemmons have resurfaced all over social media; quite like an unfulfilled dream, the famous phrase Rogers would sing in the introduction to each episode still brings with it hopes for a brighter future: won’t you be my neighbor?

I have been privileged to live much of my life in Mister Rogers’ neighborhood. Not the fictional neighborhood depicted in the show, but the neighborhood in which Fred Rogers lived in real-life: Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Much resembling its fictional parallel, I can attest that the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill has always operated on the very same values Mister Rogers would emphasize in his show; it has traditionally been known as safe, peaceful, and loving of its neighbors. One could easily label it as a physical embodiment of the fictional utopian neighborhood itself—perhaps the perfect environment for parents to raise children. 

On October 27th, 2018, however, the sound of gunshots abruptly interrupted the peacefully harmonious clockwork of Squirrel Hill when an armed gunman opened fire in the Tree of Life synagogue while shouting antisemitic slurs. The massacre quickly became the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in United States history. Along with 11 innocent souls, the serenity of mine and Mister Rogers’ neighborhood was murdered in cold blood.

In Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers constantly told his audience “I’m glad you’re the way you are” (ABC News). This is because Rogers valued the purity of life in all of its manifestations; he genuinely appreciated the uniqueness of every single individual and viewed it as his mission to help others learn to similarly value themselves. Contrarily, like all hate crimes, the terrorist who committed the Tree of Life massacre was so deeply filled with hatred toward his neighbors and so mentally disturbed by their sacrosanct uniqueness that he became a monstrous, bloodthirsty animal who absolutely could not stand the very existence of those who were different from him.

The story is a painful one, and over a year later I still do not know how to react. We hear of terrible tragedies on the news all too often, but nobody ever expects it to happen on the other side of the glass screen. Not in the neighborhood which is known for loving its neighbors. Not in a synagogue whose very name ascribes value to the preciousness of life. Not a mere few blocks from my house.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, I was especially lost in my thoughts and emotions; suddenly my mind became heavily weighted with many existential questions that demanded my attention and research in order to alleviate some of the pressure. I did not bother trying to answer the unanswerable philosophical question of why did such a tragedy have to happen? nor did I focus on the question of how could a human being commit such an inhumane act? as I understood both to require a very sophisticated biopsychosocial analysis and in-depth research. Rather, I focused on the related question that began circulating the Jewish community in the aftermath of the attack: is antisemitism on the rise once again and should American Jewry be concerned?

It is quite surprising that this question has already become widely relevant again while there are still many living Holocaust survivors who could testify to first-hand experiences with this very scary side of humanity. Unfortunately, though, it is not too surprising. This aggressive hatred against the Jewish people has resurfaced many times for the past few thousand years. Since the earliest stages of Judaism, the Jewish people have been violently persecuted across the globe (Parker 92).The historical roots are deep, going back to antiquity,” explains professor Russel A. Berman of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in an interview with Clifton B. Parker, the social science writer for Stanford News. Research from the Tel Aviv University shows how this historical trend has once again materialized with the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic:

“Since the beginning of [COVID-19], there has been a significant rise in accusations that Jews, as individuals and as a collective, are behind the spread of the virus or are directly profiting from it,” said Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, an umbrella group representing Jewish communities across the continent. “The language and imagery used clearly identifies a revival of the medieval ‘blood libels’ when Jews were accused of spreading disease, poisoning wells or controlling economies” (ABC News).

Much like the violent 14th-century conspiracies of Jews being responsible for the bubonic plague, the Jewish community has reattained its historical label as a scapegoat. 

I have been fortunate to live in an era which has been the friendliest toward Jewish life in recent history, but every so often a tragic event reminds us that we can never get too comfortable. In other countries, and Europe especially, it is without a doubt that antisemitism is on the rise. Surprisingly, Germany has recently become a ringleader in inciting violence against Jews. According to Eva Cossé from Human Rights Watch, “In Germany in 2018, anti-Semitic crimes, which include hate speech, rose by 20%, according to government data.” Similarly, a leading government official in Germany has advised German Jews to no longer wear a kippa (Judaic head covering) as a safety precaution due to recent spikes in antisemitism (Robertson). Granted, there was an inevitable backlash to this proposal and he later urged all Germans, even non-Jews, to alternatively wear kippas in support of the Jewish community (Noack).

Learning about the recent rise in antisemitism in the same country responsible for the Holocaust which occurred less than 80 years ago was incredibly unsettling. Still, I understood that situations are likely different in other countries. The United States, for example, has historically taken pride in its policies supporting freedom of religion and diversity. Thus, I understood it necessary to conduct further research in order to evaluate the safety of the Jewish people—especially within the U.S.

According to NYPD statistics “anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York City are up 63% this year as compared with last year…So far this year, there have been 152 reports of anti-Semitic hate crimes, while over the same period last year there were 93” (Morales). When New York City Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea was asked about the cause(s) for the increase in antisemitism, Shea explained that there seemingly is no definitive cause. “A number of cases that I’ve highlighted, we’ve seen some mental illness,” Shea said. “We’ve seen some people that just hate. So we’ve seen a little bit of everything” (Morales). These statistics strongly suggest a blatant rise in antisemitism—even within the historically tolerant United States of America. Likewise, the FBI’s New York office recently alerted that members of extremist groups were being persuaded to attack police with spray bottles of coronavirus-infected body fluids and to deliberately spread the virus to gatherings of Jewish people—whether in synagogues or business offices (ABC7 New York).

If the trends continue, American Jewry is in trouble. My hometown experienced a tragic awakening which exposed me to this threat, and I now understand its severity. When we hear of a distant tragedy on the news, there is generally a mental barrier which prevents us from fully internalizing the event. Perhaps it’s a safety barrier which we subconsciously erect in order to convince ourselves that most likely no such tragedy will ever affect us personally. Protected by our self-made safety barrier, we eventually may even forget about such tragedies for extended periods of time. When a tragic attack happens just a few blocks away from your house, however, and/or when said tragedy is against your own people (family, friends, religious group, etc.), there is no longer a safety barrier to be erected, as the whole foundation based on probability is gone and you come to realize that there was never the strong fortification to begin with. This leaves us unshielded and feeling incredibly vulnerable in addition to the even more powerful grief over the lives that were lost. We realize life is fragile and that we must take advantage of every second of it to be positive, actively care for others, and prevent such tragedies from ever happening again. 

I now understand why the first question I researched was whether or not antisemitism was on the rise, as well as why this question was circulating the Jewish community after the attack, and then again after the shootings in Poway, California and Jersey City, New Jersey. It was another attack on our Jewish family—our sweet brothers and sisters. Wherever I turned, all over the news and social media I saw pictures of the vigils with their hundreds of umbrellas in the dark night and so many small candles depressingly illuminating the pained faces of those who were affected. I had seen images and footage of vigils and funerals before but this time it felt different. This time I recognized the faces on the screen and the houses in the background. I felt both comforted by the strength of my community in the aftermath and uncomfortable from the new sense of penetrating vulnerability. I felt so deeply grieved over the precious souls of my community who were taken by hatred, and I accordingly gained more of an appreciation for the purity of life. This created a very heavy mix of emotions—a mix I had never felt before, and hopefully will never have to feel again. If only I could have personally met my cherished neighbors whom I have come to learn so much about through eulogies.

I do not wish to raise an irrational concern for what is not, nor do I mean to convince anyone through my emotional experience alone. I merely wish to raise awareness for a deep danger that is lurking in the shadows. The statistics are evident for anyone willing to conduct the slightest bit of research, yet it is of the unfortunate human nature for man to not properly take matters into his own hands until it is too late—only then will he retroactively become aware of the severity of the situation. I wish I had been more cognizant of this crisis before it aggressively struck my community; I wish we had known to station security guards at the entrances to our synagogues before innocent blood was spilled. For these reasons, I find it my duty to raise awareness of the current threat to the Jewish people—to take an active defense against the dangers, even if it’s in such a minor way as pointing people to the facts. 

Disregarding the factual evidence, I understand why one might argue that antisemitism is not as dangerous as I claim, but rather I, as a Jew, am exaggerating a trivial worry because it directly affects me. After all, did I not explain how my perception of the Tree of Life shooting was intensified due to my comparatively unique exposure to the event? While such a claim shows ignorance, on the surface there is some validity to it.

 In 1974, cognitive psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Khaneman conceptualized the availability heuristic. Tversky and Khaneman explained that “we estimate the likelihood of events based on how mentally available they are—how easily they come to mind” (Myers and DeWall 319).

The availability heuristic colors our judgement of other people, too. Anything that makes information pop into mind—its vividness, recentness, or distinctiveness—can make it seem commonplace. While this generally helps us to evaluate people and situations quickly, it can also distort our perceptions. If someone from a particular ethnic or religious group commits a terrorist act, as happened on September 11, 2001, our readily available memory of the dramatic event may shape our impression of the whole group. Even during that horrific year, terrorist acts claimed comparatively few lives. Yet when the statistical reality of greater dangers was pitted against the 9/11 terror, the memorable case won: Emotion-laden images of terror exacerbated our fears (Sunstein, 2007)” (Myers and DeWall 319).

The availability heuristic explains why many Americans are more afraid of terrorist attacks than accidental choking, even though accidental choking poses a much greater threat statistically. This fascinating concept is capable of convincing even the smartest of people to make a dumb decision, and it explains why “casinos entice us to gamble by signaling even small wins with bells and lights—making them mentally vivid—while keeping big losses invisible” (Myers and DeWall 319).

For these aforementioned reasons, I understand why one might assume I am taking a biased perspective and overexaggerating the current dangers toward my religion, especially considering the truth that my closeness in exposure to the Pittsburgh tragedy did, in fact, enhance my feeling of vulnerability and sorrow. However, this should not be confused with the availability heuristic. The statistics clearly show an uneasy rise in antisemitism that should bother any human being. This is not a matter of me overestimating the dangers of antisemitism; rather the dangers posed by recent trends are being underrecognized by a majority of people, including Jews, and regardless of the exact probability of any single anti-Jewish attack, the odds are greater than they have been in recent history and will only continue to grow if not tended to; evidently, I feel the need to vocalize this concern not because of an irrational availability heuristic, but rather because I have come to understand that the safety of my people is on the line and the situation can easily become even more bloody. The dangers are real—my neighborhood experienced them first-hand, so I will voice them so long as I have a voice:

“New York, NY, November 12, 2019 … ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) today called on lawmakers and law enforcement authorities to take action to address the deeply disturbing climate of hate in the United States after newly released FBI data showed that Jews and Jewish institutions were the overwhelming target of religion-based hate crimes last year—as they have been every year since 1991” (ADL). 

According to data from the FBI, 57.8 percent of religious-biased offenses were anti-Jewish. That is nearly a 300 percent increase compared to the second-most common target of religious-biased offense (anti-Islam offenses—at 14.5 percent), and a 1,421 percent increase compared to the fourth-most common (anti-Catholic—at 3 percent). This is especially nerve-wracking considering Jews only account for less than 2% of the United States population, while Catholics make up more than 20% (Pew Research Center).

Clearly, this is not just a matter of the availability heuristic phenomenon. This is actually happening, and the threats are legitimate—just as legitimate as the blood my high school teacher had to clean off the walls of the synagogue. October 27th, 2018 was an unfortunate, depressing awakening for me. I am now aware of the timeless vulnerability that has essentially never stopped facing the Jewish people. Since the origins of Judaism, antisemitism has always been and always will be. It should not take a tragedy for one to acknowledge its modern-day presence, but I will admit, with regret, that in my case it did. This should not only worry the Jewish community in America or the Jewish population worldwide. This should not only perturb the various religions and minorities of the world. This should be a concern to all of humanity. 

In the opinions section of the New York Times, Ms. Bari Weiss writes “When a terrorist comes to your hometown, you might sit, days later, with Rabbi Wasserman as he tells you that ‘unless someone is a soldier in a war zone, I defy anyone to tell me they’ve seen what I just saw.’ He will tell you that he saw Bernice and Sylvan Simon, who were married in that synagogue, dead in each other’s arms. He will tell you that he saw a piece of a person’s skull and that he knew who it was because he recognized their hair.” Special agent of the F.BI. Robert Jones similarly called it the “most horrific crime scene” he has seen in 22 years (Robertson).

Since we’ve debunked the counterargument premised on the availability heuristic, there is really no room to argue against the necessity for awareness of what’s happening in terms of antisemitism. Our energies should be focused toward a solution. In the days following the attack, the pained Squirrel Hill community began working toward a brighter future by lighting small candles in the darkness—literally and figuratively. My neighbors understood that the only way to fight darkness is with light. After all, what better way for the Squirrel Hill community to embrace a tragic massacre than with the advice of its very own hero, Fred Rogers (quoting his mother): “Whenever there would be any real catastrophe, she would say, ‘Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers just on the sidelines’” (News, ABC).

Indeed, there were helpers. Helpers like the first responders who risked their lives to seize the terrorist. Helpers like former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel who helped carry the coffin of David Rosenthal. Helpers like Nina Butler who delivered chicken soup to the SWAT officer who was in the hospital recovering from seven gunshot wounds (Weiss). Helpers like the Muslim organizations who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Synagogue within a few days of the attack. The helpers were definitely there, on the sidelines, each acting as a small vigil candle in the darkness.

As humans who value the preciousness of life, it is our duty to combat the inhumane exactly how Fred Rogers would—by honoring humanity in all of its hues and manifestations. It is our duty to restore the damage done to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and to revive its reputation by conducting ourselves as its citizens would: valuing each of our neighbors for their sacrosanct uniqueness. It is our duty to keep lighting candles. The darkness is overwhelming, but we can combat it. A single candle can illuminate an entire room, and a community of candles—an entire city. Anne Frank, one of the millions of tragic victims of the Holocaust, understood the importance of this message and put her last efforts toward it as well. She is quoted: “Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” 

This is an indisputably important mission, so we must come to understand what it entails pragmatically. The most effective way to combat hatred is by uprooting it from its core. The nucleus of all hatred is comprised of misinformation, stereotypes, and implicit biases. According to Lobsang Rapgay, Ph.D., from Psychology Today, these unfortunate tendencies can easily cause one to devalue others—to erect a derogatory mental separation between us and them. This segregation fundamentally leads to dehumanization, hatred, and in some cases, violence. Likewise, in a discussion with the Harvard Gazette, established Harvard psychologist and implicit-social-cognition-specialist Mahzarin Banaji discusses the relationship between implicit bias and open prejudice. She asserts that there are conditional circumstances in which such prejudice could lead to violence (Powell).

In her famous TED Talk, Megan Phelps-Roper discusses how this disastrous recipe locked her in to the doctrine of the Westboro Baptist Church where she pugnaciously picketed against members of the LGBTQ community, Jews, and many other groups. Since the age of five, she was raised to carry signs with warlike statements such as gays are worthy of death. She remained a very loud and proud voice within Westboro for over twenty years, taking her belligerent opinions to riots and social media on a daily basis. Since she attracted a lot of attention in the media, strangers began contacting her online and arguing with her through Twitter. That’s when something peculiar happened. A handful of those who reached out were exceptionally wise and understood the situation as an opportunity to combat prejudice with humanity. Instead of adding fuel to the fire, these individuals would patiently listen to Phelps-Roper’s argument—asking her questions and civilly proposing counterarguments. Unlike any of the thousands of interactions she had experienced during her protests, the buffer of the internet forced her to read and comprehend her opposers’ arguments and to engage in real dialogue with the other side instead of instinctively letting emotions take control of the yelling back and forth. She was forced to address the questions proposed against her, and she likewise began to project inquiries of her own. Naturally, she began to mirror her opponents, taking a step back from the emotionally charged, blinding aggression. 

In 2012, Megan Phelps-Roper officially left the Westboro Baptist Church. “My friends on Twitter didn’t abandon their beliefs or their principles—only their scorn,” she explains, “they channeled their infinitely justifiable offense and came to me with pointed questions tempered with kindness and humor. They approached me as a human being.” In such a way, her friends on Twitter slowly disassembled her implicit biases, misconceptions, and baseless stereotypes. They gradually bridged the gap she had mentally constructed between us and them. They used humanity to combat the inhumane. They ignited a candle in a place of darkness.

The most effective way to restore humanity on the global level is to create a society which encourages healthy engagement and respectful, patient dialogue between its citizens. Such a society would alleviate implicit biases and stereotypes; it would tremendously suppress prejudice and dehumanization. Unfortunately, our society does not seem to be headed down that path. It is without a doubt that the public discourse today has formed a societal attitude which promotes divisiveness and implicit biases, such as the confirmation bias, thus preventing people from truly engaging with each other. The confirmation bias is the “tendency to search for information that supports our preconceptions and to ignore or distort contradictory evidence” (Myers and DeWall 317). Comments on social media are warlike. Misleading news titles are rampant. Misinformation and confirmation biases are fueling peoples’ overconfidence, causing them to neglect the opinions of others and dehumanize them. Let’s remind ourselves that dehumanization is synonymous with hatred and is a catalyst of violence. 

Banaji mentions this unsettling trend in her interview: 

“From the 1970s on, we’ve been segregating by politics. A book called The Big Sort showed that if you look at where people are living in the country, it used to be purple. Sure, we are divided by socioeconomic status, but liberals and conservatives used to live in the same neighborhood, marked by a particular SES. Now, for every socioeconomic layer, there is a more liberal and more conservative neighborhood. So people are sorting themselves not just into socioeconomic groups, but by what they believe…It is absolutely my belief that politics is the new religion. We do see each other as outgroups with our God being superior to the other person’s God” (Powell).

Society is not just encouraging a mental separation between us and them, it is creating an even more threatening physical segregation. This equation of dependent variables is the formula for exponential growth in hatred and should frighten anyone with hopes for a brighter future. Phelps-Roper also explicitly raises this concern in her TED talk:

“I can’t help but see, in our public discourse, so many of the same destructive impulses that ruled my former church. We celebrate tolerance and diversity more than at any other time in memory, and still we grow more and more divided. We want good things—justice, equality, freedom, dignity, prosperity—but the path we’ve chosen looks so much like the one I walked away from four years ago. We’ve broken the world in to us and them, only emerging from our bunkers long enough to lob rhetorical grenades at the other camp. We write off half the country as out of touch liberal elites, or racist misogynist bullies—no nuance, no complexity, no humanity.”

I will say it once again: If we want to combat the inhumane, we must engage in humanity. If we want to live in a world where we won’t need to rely on an increasingly weakening illusion of probability-based fortification for our safety, we must act as a community. If we want to have the ability to properly meditate in our houses of communal prayer without our legs trembling in fear, we must come to understand that God created all men in His image. If we want to no longer have to worry for the safety of our children as they board the bus to school, we must realize that it takes a village to raise a child. If we want to honor the victims of the Tree of Life and once again restore peace to the world, we must ask: 

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Works Cited

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Bianculli, David. “It’s A Beautiful 50th Birthday For ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’.” NPR, NPR, 19 Feb. 2018,

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Fieldstadt, Elisha. “Sydney Aiello, a Parkland School Shooting Survivor, Kills Herself.”, NBCUniversal News Group, 27 Mar. 2019,

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“Incidents and Offenses.” FBI, FBI, 29 Oct. 2019,

“In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 12 Nov. 2019,

McCausland, Phil. “New Zealand Mosque Shooting Reminds Pittsburgh Jewish Community of Recent Heartache.”, NBCUniversal News Group, 16 Mar. 2019,

Morales, Mark. “New York Police Say There’s Been a Surge in Anti-Semitic Hate Crimes.” CNN, Cable News Network, 5 Sept. 2019,

Myers, David G., and C. Nathan DeWall. Exploring Psychology in Modules. Macmillan Learning, 2016.

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Noack, Rick. “A German Official Warned Jews against Wearing the Kippah. After Backlash, He Urged All Germans to Put Them on in Support.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 28 May 2019,

Parker, Clifton B. “The Once and Future Anti-Semitism.” Hoover Institution, Stanford University, 26 July 2019,

Phelps-Roper, Megan. “I Grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s Why I Left.” TED, Feb. 2017,

Phelps-Roper, Megan. “Megan Phelps-Roper.” TED,

Powell, Alvin. “When It Comes to Bias-Based Hate, U.S. Appears to Be Slipping, Harvard Analyst Says.” Harvard Gazette, Harvard Gazette, 1 Nov. 2018,

Rapgay, Lobsang. “The Psychology of Hate.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 31 Mar. 2018,

Robertson, Campbell, et al. “11 Killed in Synagogue Massacre; Suspect Charged With 29 Counts.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Oct. 2018,

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Sheldon, Chris. “Jersey City Shooting Was a Hate Crime, Authorities Say. What We Still Need to Know.”, 13 Dec. 2019,

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Tovia Jacobs is a 21-year-old full-time student at Yeshiva University in New York. He is on a pre-medicine study course and is a passionate advocate for mental health. In his piece, “An Attack on Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” Tovia reflects on a nightmarish awakening that befell his hometown on October 27, 2018. He then employs statistical evidence and concepts in psychology to explore the root of modern-day hatred and violence. 

In a period of rapidly escalating racial and political tensions ensuing across the United States, Tovia’s reflection is particularly relevant in bringing about hopes for a brighter future. Though the piece focuses on the recent surge in antisemitism, Tovia likewise views it as a tribute to George Floyd and a stance of solidarity with the Black community in this time.