NEW YORK, BOSTON – This Saturday marks the climax of a national campaign that urges Americans – Jews and non-Jews alike – to fill the pews over the weekend in order to demonstrate their resilience to anti-Semitism and terrorism.
The #ShowUpForShabbat campaign was initiated by the American Jewish Committee in the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting attack that took place the previous Saturday morning, when a Nazi sympathizer killed eleven worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, spraying them with bullets.
The campaign aimed to fill up synagogues for Friday night and Saturday morning services.
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On Friday night at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, there was not an empty seat in the room, as an unusually large crowd poured into the Manhattan synagogue. The guards standing outside the doors, greeting the crowd with flowers, were members of the Muslim community from the Islamic Center at New York University who had come to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community.
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One of the members of the Islamic center, Nada Haq-Siddiqi, held a sign that said “Faith Unites US/Love revives US.” Haq-Siddique said: “I grew up around Jewish people. Even though we may squabble about different things, we are all human and want the same thing.” She added that “very often you see that when hatred rises, the Jewish community is targeted first. It is terrifying, we have to stand together.”
Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBTQ synagogue that has long been active in championing diversity in Judaism and fighting against social injustices, was one of many synagogues across the U.S. that opened its doors for the #ShowUpForShabbat campaign.
As the seats filled up in the synagogue's halls, Muslim guests joined the service, still holding the signs they had made to show their support. A few dozen people gathered to pray in the lobby.
Among the crowd was Juhy Ali, who doesn’t often attend political events. “I felt it was very important just to show my Jewish brothers and sisters that we stand with them in solidarity. To show our support in any way we can," Ali said.
“There are so many groups that 45 is trying to divide," Ali said, referring to U.S. President Donald Trump. "But if we stand together there is no defeating us.”
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah's first rabbi and a prominent human rights advocate told Haaretz: "Our message is to not let the fear control us.” As Kleinbaum prepared to begin the services, she said, “the response to anti-Semitism is to be even more out and proud as Jews."
Kleinbaum went on to explain: "There is tremendous hate in this world, and we as LGBTQ Jews, we feel doubly vulnerable. But we feel great comfort and strength from reaching out to other communities, like the Muslims who you saw gathered outside, protecting us tonight, like the refugees and the immigrants."
All across the country
In Boston, more than 1,500 people of a variety of faiths packed Reform synagogue Temple Israel Friday, with rabbis uttering angry sermons at this a special Shabbat remembrance of the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, who is seeking re-election in this week’s national midterm poll, spoke at the emotional two-hour service. Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh and Senator Edward Markey also spoke at the Boston shul.
Some two dozen clergymen and women from an array of Protestant and Catholic churches and mosques joined in blessing the congregants and offering messages of solidarity.
“Tonight I stand by you my friends and my neighbors in the Jewish community,” said Governor Baker. He recalled how the nation’s first president George Washington had led the way in guaranteeing zero tolerance of bigotry toward Jews in a letter written to a Jewish community in Rhode Island in 1790.
“I believe the vast majority of American citizens know that what makes us stronger, better, greater is our diversity and our difference. There is work to do, and we stand with you, always,” Baker said.
Walsh added, “These evils have been with us for a long time, but anti-Semitism and racism have been reawakened in a frightening way recently. So we must be reawakened as well. We must act with urgency in faith and love,” to combat the problem, he said.
Without naming Trump, Markey, a Democrat, assailed the president’s attacks on immigration and the media.
“We all know that the Unites States stands for unity and for freedom. We cannot build a wall of hatred around our nation,” Markey said.
“We cannot make America great again by making America hate again,” Markey added. “As Americans we believe in the freedom of speech not the freedom of hate speech. We believe in a free press. But not in the freedom to attack the press. We believe in the freedom of religion but not just one religion.”
The pair of rabbis who preside at Temple Israel, a synagogue devoted to aiding immigrants and refugees, led inspirational prayers accompanied by a guitar and issued calls to action against gun violence and hatred in America.
The names of the Pittsburgh victims were read out, followed by a Kaddish – the Jewish prayer for the dead - uttered by the crowd in their honor. An African-American couple killed last week in Kentucky was also honored.
“We feel that we are drowning in a tidal wave of anti-Semitism, hatred, [and] bigotry,” Rabbi Matt Sofer of Temple Israel said from the pulpit.
“We grieve with their families, their communities and with all those who feel they are being targeted for the color of their skin,” Sofer said. “When will this pain and grief go away?”
“This is what happens again and again when white nationalism is fueled, when hatred is provoked, when birtherism is endorsed by the highest office of the land,” the rabbi said, referring to Trump's conspiracy against former U.S. President Barack Obama. “All who are complicit... have blood on their hands,” Sofer said.
Rabbi Elaine Zecher intoned: “Despair. What kind of world do we live in? Is any place safe anymore? We are fearful.”
She referenced an incident in Boston where racist epithets, calling for the deaths of black children, were found daubed on a school building on Wednesday, and the case of a anti-Semitic hate painted on a synagogue in Brooklyn on Thursday.
“Let us just recognize that no other developed nation in the world has this kind of gun violence. Why is this normal? It isn’t. What will it take, how many more? Are we that powerless?” Zecher said.
Organizers said attendance at Friday's service was more than seven times as many as normal. The audience was a kaleidoscope of African Americans, Muslims and Christians, seated among many Jewish members and visitors.
Tamana Ahmad, 33, a Bostonian of Muslim faith, said she had come to the prayer session out of a feeling that minorities had to stick together in the current climate of strife.
“An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us and we have to stand together in the face of hatred, bigotry and racism. If we don’t stand up for each other no one will. The Jewish people are brothers and sisters of faith. We come from a common ancestry. Absolutely we should stand up for family,” Ahmad said.