PITTSBURGH - In many Jewish synagogues across the U.S., the main sanctuaries are in use only on special occasions. Declining attendance has turned once teeming auditoriums into monuments of glories past. On Saturday, however, sanctuaries throughout the U.S. were packed, none more so than Pittsburgh’s conservative Beth Shalom synagogue, which played host to the bereaved members of the Tree of Life and Ohr Hadash congregations, who lost 11 of their friends in Robert Bowers’ murderous rampage last week. They have been exiled from their own synagogue by the Pittsburgh police, which continues to regard the Tree of Life building in Squirrel Hill as a crime scene, though they’ve promised to return it to its rightful owners by Tuesday.
The crowd streamed into Beth Shalom’s magnificent main sanctuary, with its tall stained glass windows and elaborate podium. Many of them were refreshingly young, belying, at least on this somber occasion, the well-known pattern of aging Jewish congregations. Most seemed to know each other, but there were many newcomers and first-timers as well, including non-Jews. The locals hugged each other in consolation and to give each other strength. “We’ve had a tough week,” one woman told me, in the understatement of the year.
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Other than the babies, who answer to no one, the crowd stayed unusually quiet and attentive throughout the unduly long five-hour service. They seemed to be following every word of prayer, as if hearing them for the first time. They responded emphatically and on cue at the appropriate moments, as if their words, which devout Jews recite on a daily basis, had acquired a whole new meaning. Their grief and sadness was mitigated by their strong sense of community and by the power of their restraint.
You didn’t have to be religious, or even Jewish for that matter, to be moved.
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Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog, who attended the prayers, thankfully refrained from emulating other official Israeli consolers, who drew false equivalencies between leftist radicals and white supremacists and were overly enthusiastic in their defense of Donald Trump.
Herzog noted the unity of prayer between Jews of varying denominations, saying that it was the only possible answer to the atrocity perpetrated by Bowers. It sent a message of love, unity, friendship and peace, Herzog said, uttering words that are lingua franca among American Jews but shunned by their Israeli counterparts as hopelessly naive.
Israel, in fact, was not mentioned at all by the other speakers, with the exception of the traditional prayer for its wellbeing, which is now a regular staple in Conservative and most Reform congregations. If only Israelis prayed for the safety and wellbeing of American Jews, I thought to myself, instead of taking them for granted.
More problematic, perhaps, was the Prayer For Our Country, i.e., the U.S., which includes a request that God bless “our leader.” In the days of Trump, many liberal rabbis either omit this appeal or utter it under protest. Trump nonetheless played a prominent role in the sermon given by Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, which was actually more of an attempt to rebuff the criticism directed at him for agreeing to host Trump at the scene of the crime last week.
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Myers recounted what he perceived as a genuine emotional moment, when Trump placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. He seemed to be genuinely shocked by the details of the synagogue massacre, Myers asserted. Melania Trump, Myers said, was even more shocked by her husband’s apparently unusual show of emotion.
Myers repeatedly recounted that he had told the President that “hate speech leads to hateful action,” an admonition that Trump probably thought was directed at everyone except for him. Within a few hours of lighting 11 memorial candles at the site where the Jews were killed, he was back at it, and with a vengeance. In his campaign rallies over the past few days, in fact, Trump has doubled down on his inflammatory rhetoric on the imminent immigrant “invasion,” using the exact same words that Bowers took from him as a rationale for the mass murder of Jews in the first place.
The audience applauded Myers’ reasoning for greeting Trump, which included the biblical mitzvah of hosting strangers, the moral imperative of not answering hate with more hate and the fact that he is, after the all, the President of the United States. Not everyone was happy though. My elderly neighbor in the back row leaned over and said, “We have to do something about that man.” Before she went on to spell out exactly what she had in mind, I quickly said “First, let’s wait for Tuesday’s elections,” which seemed to satisfy her, for the time being at least.
As for myself, if you will allow me, I admit to being unusually stirred by the service. At first it was pure nostalgia, because the tunes and hymns sung by the congregation were identical to those I sang on every Shabbat during four years that I spent in Los Angeles as a child. I was also touched by the mutual solidarity and empathy shown by the Pittsburgh Jews. And I was undoubtedly impressed by the admirable conduct of the congregants, by their goodwill, by their care for each other, by their pledge, despite their anger and grief, to devote even more time and energy to promoting understanding and goodwill amongst themselves and with other minority communities, most notably Muslims.
It’s no small matter that Pittsburgh Muslims raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help refurbish the Tree of Life synagogue. To my closed Middle Eastern mind, the words of Wasi Mohamed, executive director the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, at the memorial vigil held last week to honor the slain Jews, bordered on the miraculous: “We just want to know what you need,” he told the Jews and their leaders. “If it’s more money, let us know. If it’s people outside your next service protecting you, let us know — we’ll be there…. If you just need somebody to come to the grocery store because you don’t feel safe in this city, we’ll be there and I’m sure everybody in the room would say the same thing. We’re here for the community.”
Which is when outrage began to consume me. I had no doubt that Mohamed's sympathy was enabled by the Muslim recognition that the Jewish community, in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, may differ with him over Israel and the occupation, but stands shoulder to shoulder as minorities who feel threatened in the age of Donald Trump. For over a century, American Jews have been at the forefront of almost every meaningful campaign for human and civil rights - especially those of other minorities.
Their Orthodox critics, especially in Israel, claim with disdain that liberalism has replaced Judaism as the main religion of American Jews. Anyone who attended the prayers at Beth Shalom on Saturday would see how ridiculous the claim is, at least for those Jews who choose to remain affiliated with Jewish institutions. In any case, is the American Jewish dedication to safeguarding minorities really something to be ashamed of? Is it more shameful to be a Jew who cherishes Tikkun Olam than one who bases the occupation and the subjugation of Palestinians on biblical texts?
I looked around at the women and men sitting together at Beth Shalom, sharing the responsibility of conducting the complex service, and an age old question popped into my mind: Who is a Jew? And how is it that the State of Israel, my country, has willingly subjugated itself to fundamentalist Jews who live by moral codes formulated hundreds of years ago and petrified ever since? Why have secular Israelis succumbed to a movement that blindly follows rabbis whose spiritual leadership is based on being born to their fathers, that denies women any role in public life, that is obsessed with the purity of Jewish blood, that is concerned with Jews and Jews alone, but only if they follow the rules; a movement that, were it not Jewish, would comply with all the criteria of a cult.
And don't get me started on the perverted fusion of religion and Jewish nationalism that drives Israeli policy today. And these retrograde Jews, who lord over marriage and divorce in Israel and who hold all Israeli coalitions in the palms of their hands - they have the chutzpah to deny recognition for American Jews who prefer to live the 21st Century rather than the 19th? Give me a break.
Those who came to Beth Shalom synagogue in Pittsburgh are no less Jewish than their Orthodox Israeli brethren who shun and mock them. To my mind, in fact, they're even more. Which is why I am now trying to figure out whether Israelis can declare themselves American Jews as well. If it's possible, I plan to be the first to volunteer.