From Coast to Coast, Vigils for Pittsburgh Shooting Victims Voice Defiance and Solidarity

From interfaith events in San Francisco to community vigils in New York City, Jews and non-Jews alike come together to remember those slain in synagogue shooting

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
San Francisco, New York
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Mourners reacting during a memorial service at the Sailors and Soldiers Memorial Hall of the University of Pittsburgh, a day after 11 worshippers were shot dead at the city's Tree of Life synagogue, October 28, 2018.
Mourners reacting during a memorial service at the Sailors and Soldiers Memorial Hall of the University of Pittsburgh, a day after 11 worshippers were shot dead at the city's Tree of Life synagogue, OCredit: Matt Rourke,AP
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
San Francisco, New York

SAN FRANCISCO, NEW YORK – Despite the sunny California skies, the mood was somber and melancholy as hundreds of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists stood patiently in line at the entrance to Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco’s largest synagogue, to attend an interfaith “gathering against hate” on Sunday afternoon in memory of the Tree of Life shooting victims in Pittsburgh the previous day.

Meanwhile, under overcast skies in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, over 200 people gathered to memorialize the 11 Jews murdered a day earlier and to find comfort in being together.

These were but two of many such gatherings to take place Saturday night and Sunday across the country – from the East End of Long Island to California. Several were held in New York City, with a large memorial at Congregation Ansche Chesed on Manhattan’s Upper West Side Sunday evening and another, organized by pop-up experimental community Lab/Shul, in the West Village.

A crowd of about 200 people attending the Brooklyn Youth Vigil, a memorial for those murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, October 29, 2018.Credit: Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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The Brooklyn gathering, called a Youth Vigil, was organized by teens from Congregation Beth Elohim, a Reform temple in Park Slope. People connected to a wide range of synagogues from around the borough attended. It concluded with a recitation of the names of those murdered, their ages and a few words about them, following by the Kaddish memorial prayer and an impromptu singing of “Am Yisrael Chai” (“The Jewish People Live”).

Sonia Chajet Wides, a 14-year-old 10th-grader, was one of the young people behind the vigil. The Pittsburgh mass shooting “definitely makes me feel unsafe, and also upset knowing that my synagogue will be a different place security-wise after this,” she told Haaretz. Like most, her synagogue is adding to already-significant safety precautions in the massacre’s aftermath. “It’s hard to accept that that’s necessary,” said Chajet Wides, who has been an activist since President Donald Trump was elected in November 2016. She is also a creator of a website called Teens Resist, and said she organized the vigil so “teenagers could support each other and be in a space specifically for them – though lots of other people came too.”

Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Congregation Beth Elohim addressing the crowd at the Brooklyn vigil, October 29, 2018.Credit: Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Amber Adler came from the Flatbush neighborhood with her two young sons – Shmuel, age 6, and Yaacov, age 4 – holding posters they made. One said “The Answer is Always Love.”

“It’s important to show up,” said Adler, who attends Congregation Etz Chaim, an Orthodox synagogue in Flatbush, and whose sons attend an Orthodox yeshiva there. “We’re nearing that pivotal time when people need to do more than hope and pray,” she said. “They need to show up, they need to have something to say, and make sure it’s heard. … If people are coming for Jews they’re coming for everyone,” she added.

Teen organizers of the Brooklyn vigil holding up a hastily made banner, saying “Hineni, We Are Here,” October 29, 2018.Credit: Debra Nussbaum Cohen

“We must speak out and say there is no room for this, because we know that speech leads to action and we saw yesterday how in the most terrible way speech leads to action,” said Beth Elohim’s rabbi, Rachel Timoner, who addressed vigil attendees.

The very first messages she got after news of the massacre broke were from religious leaders of other faiths, she said. “The first message I received was from a Muslim woman leader saying ‘You are not alone, I stand with you.’ Then I got one from an imam who is not documented and living in fear all the time that he is going to be taken away from his family. He wrote: ‘God bless the Jewish people, you have a friend in me and I will always stand by your side.’”

Timoner continued, “We are not alone. There are many people who want us to know that they stand with us. That is the way we are going to make it through this time.”

Interfaith vigils

The interfaith event in San Francisco was attended by the city’s mayor and Israel’s deputy consul general.

“I guess we’re going to have to get used to this,” sighed a congregation member, as they walked through metal detectors and surrendered their bags to security guards for inspection before entering the courtyard of the synagogue complex on the edge of the Presidio.

Once, the courtyard had been open to the street in the tony San Francisco neighborhood, showing off the unique Mediterranean revival architecture of the synagogue that, founded in 1850, proudly boasts of being the oldest congregation west of the Mississippi. Now – at least for this event – a metal detector had been added.

An interfaith vigil for the 11 Jewish victims of the Pittsburgh mass shooting, at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, October 29, 2018.Credit: Allison Kaplan Sommer

One of the first in line was Protestant minister Rev. Pat Kleinberg. When asked why she felt compelled to attend, tears sprang to her eyes. “I wanted to come to a vigil against hate and be in a place where people are coming together to say that this is not OK, and pray for things to change in this country,” she said.

When she heard about the Pittsburgh shooting, Kleinberg said “it was shocking and horrifying – unbelievable that something like this could happen in this country, even though I knew it had happened in so many other countries.”

Behind her stood Bill Carty, a devout Catholic, wearing a large cross around his neck and a jacket reading “St. Dominic Men’s Club,” accompanied by his friend Ed Malcolm – a member of Dignity, which describes itself as “a self-governing faith community of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Catholics.”

Bill Carty and Ed Malcolm at the interfaith vigil in San Francisco, October 29, 2018. "We have to learn to love each other more," said Malcolm.Credit: Allison Kaplan Sommer

“Whatever religion or denomination we are, we are children of God. I wanted my presence to show that,” said Carty. Malcolm added: “Jews have been marginalized, and we gay men have also been marginalized. At times like this, you want to have your voice heard. And what I am saying is that we have to learn to love each other more.”

'Worst kind of evil'

When the service began, speaker after speaker offered their prayers for the victims in Pittsburgh. A Catholic priest told the audience, “We must be reminded that Jesus wept for us all.” A Buddhist priest pressed his hands together and said that it was necessary, in times of such tragedy, to “take refuge in the spirit of love and life.” A representative of the Muslim community said he had come “to offer our friendship and our brotherhood, because this is how we are going to heal.”

Mayor London Breed, 43, who became the first African-American woman to lead the city last summer, said the “increase in anti-Semitism across this country” was “shameful.” Regarding Pittsburgh, she said “the robbing of life during worship is the worst kind of evil,” but expressed hope that “our shared faith will provide a light out of the darkness” of this moment.

The most powerful moment in the service didn’t come from a member of the clergy or political leader, but from Mindy Finkelstein, an area resident who had been a victim of white supremacist violence when, at age 16, she was shot twice in the leg by white supremacist Buford O. Furrow, Jr., who attacked the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles in 1999.

Her voice breaking as she wept, Finkelstein confessed that hearing the details of the Pittsburgh shootings “made me feel like I was 16 again, lying in a pool of my own blood, crying for my parents … when a man tried to kill me for being Jewish and my world was torn apart.”

Struggling to regain her composure, she said her experience ended up strengthening, not weakening, her connection to Judaism – a result of the embrace she received from her community following the attack. She recalled attending a family Bat Mitzvah in a wheelchair shortly after the shooting and how “Holocaust survivors came to offer me support,” noting that “several of them were from Pittsburgh.”

Clergymen and women at the interfaith vigil in San Francisco, October 29, 2018. “When we help hold each other up, who hold up hope,” said senior Rabbi Jonathan Singer.Credit: Allison Kaplan Sommer

The most overt political message was delivered by Amos C. Brown, a civil rights activist who serves both as president of the San Francisco branch of the NAACP and pastor of the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco.

Quoting the childhood chant “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can’t hurt me,” he warned: “Don’t you believe that. Words can heal and words can hurt. … May we go down from this service with the resolve that we will watch our words. And then we will we come to have the courage to hold the person who is in the highest seat in this nation responsible for his words.”

Emanu-El rabbis said they were still reeling from events in Pittsburgh, but had been encouraged by the show of support from the wider community.

“When we help hold each other up, who hold up hope,” said senior Rabbi Jonathan Singer. “We reject hatred and embrace love.” In front of the audience, delivering a prayer to God, Singer said that the kind of hate crime that took place in Pittsburgh “isn’t just directed at us as Jews, but at the entire diversity of your creation.”

Rabbi Jason Rodich at the interfaith vigil on October 29, 2018. He said he felt "angry with our president for spreading divisiveness instead of unity."Credit: Allison Kaplan Sommer

A younger Emanu-El rabbi, Jason Rodich, said that while “inspired by our allies” in the community, he still felt “horrified, sad, angry with our government and angry with our president for spreading divisiveness instead of unity. This was not just an attack on the Jews – it was part of a much bigger problem of hatred and division.”

Meanwhile, at Ansche Chesed on the Upper West Side, the mournful gathering of thousands filled the sanctuary and flowed out onto the sidewalk outside. Those in attendance sang “Gesher Tzar Maod” (“The World is a Narrow Bridge”), whose words say “The important thing is not to be afraid.”

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