U.S. Synagogues Invite Grieving Jews to Sit Shiva Together After Trump Victory

With tears and palpable fear, dozens of synagogues hold hastily-organized gatherings across the country.

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Beth Elohim’s Cantor Josh Breitzer sings the 23rd Psalm, November 9, 2016.
Beth Elohim’s Cantor Josh Breitzer sings the 23rd Psalm, November 9, 2016.Credit: Debra Nussbaum Cohen

NEW YORK – There were tears at preschool drop off hours after Donald Trump was declared president-elect, but at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn they weren’t from the 3-year-olds. It was parents who cried, many of them overcome by grief and fear after Hillary Clinton’s stunning loss to a man who throughout his campaign crudely expressed explicitly anti-Semitic, racist and sexist views.

“People were openly weeping,” said Douglas Schneider, an attorney and local political activist who was one of those who cried at the synagogue preschool while dropping off his young son. “This is a real gut punch. Not just because Donald Trump will be president. It’s also about what this says about who the United States is today.”

Schneider returned to Beth Elohim’s sanctuary in the evening before the preschool's parent-teacher conferences, and with tears in his eyes, spoke about feeling afraid.

The gathering on Wednesday was one of many — perhaps dozens — at synagogues across the country. They were hastily organized in New York, Philadelphia, Atlanda and Los Angeles, among other cities, by rabbis who realized that congregants needed a place to grieve together.

As these mournful community gatherings took place, tens of thousands of Americans were taking to the streets in cities across the country, protesting the Trump presidency.

“People feel heartbroken and in disbelief, and the profound division and brokenness” of America, said Rolando Matalon, a rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where another gathering took place Wednesday night. “As a spiritual community we need to give people space to hold each other or pray and sing, to give people the opportunity to express themselves.”

To address the vitriol unleashed by Trump’s campaign, “we have to develop a vision and be disciplined and focused and strong,” Matalon said. “But that comes after we’ve had a chance to break down and cry and mourn,” he said. 

Farther downtown, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum was planning a similar event at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, where she held one for staff in the afternoon. “People feel shock, fear, anxiety and grief. It really feels like we need to sit shiva this week,” she told Haaretz.

As Jews and as members of the LGBTQ community, CBST members feel doubly vulnerable. The sanctuary in the congregation’s new space near Madison Square Garden was open to the public all afternoon. “Some people are sitting for awhile. Others are just sobbing,” said Kleinbaum. “I don’t think any of us can stop crying.”

Rabbi Rachel Timoner counsels attendees at a gathering the night after the U.S. election, November 9, 2016.Credit: Debra Nussbaum Cohen

It is no accident that the gatherings have been organized by synagogues, she said, because “synagogues are uniquely poised as a container for people to express grief and fear, and to move through it in community,” said Kleinbaum. “Just like when we go through an individual death, isolation is the worst thing. Being in a community where there is space to grieve is important.”

“There is palpable fear,” said Rabbi Denise Eger after people filled the sanctuary of her synagogue, Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, Los Angeles, on Wednesday night. Some drove as much as two hours to get there, she said.

Eger, who is president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis as well as leader of her synagogue for the past quarter century, organized the service after getting a torrent of texts from congregants through Tuesday night. "People really had spiritual crises last night," she told Haaretz. They said, “What are we going to do?" and "I feel like I don’t belong in this country."

People in same-sex partnerships “are worried that their marriages are on the block, women are really worried about women’s reproductive rights. We have people of color, immigrants, people whose partners are immigrants and they are all afraid,” Eger explained. As an out lesbian rabbi, she has seen many previous political campaigns strike fear in the hearts of LGBT people, but added that “In my lifetime I have not seen anything frighten the Jewish community like [this election].”

Part of what she plans to oversee at Kol Ami is regular prayers for the health of U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony Kennedy, “who is a voice of reason on the right,” Eger said, hoping that they don’t retire. If they do, Trump would likely nominate justices who would overturn the right to abortion, among other things, she said.

At nearby Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, California, more than 50 adults and some children gathered and made bag lunches for the homeless “as an affirmation of a positive action in the world,” said Eger. Her wife, Rabbi Eleanor Steinman, is the associate rabbi there.

Some of the gatherings were interfaith. New York City’s Lab/Shul, led by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, participated in a “public pray-in” with Protestant ministers and others in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park Wednesday afternoon. The event, which was organized by Auburn Theological Seminary, “was super powerful,” said Lau-Lavie. Lab/Shul, like other congregations, is also planning meetings on Shabbat and Sunday at which members can process their feelings.

At Brooklyn’s Beth Elohim Wednesday evening Rabbi Rachel Timoner spoke about fear of “what has been unleashed” by Trump’s campaign and victory. The sanctuary there was open from 4 to 8 P.M. At times there were dozens of people. All in all, Timoner told Haaretz, a few hundred Brooklynites came.

One woman there said that, as she watched the televised map of the country while ballots were counted, with one state after another turning red to reflect Trump’s victory there, “it felt like America was bleeding.”

Timoner told Haaretz about some of the text messages, emails and calls she got through election night and the following day. “People are despondent,” she said. “One congregant called a suicide hotline and told me that she couldn’t get through because so many people were calling.”

Just down the street, members of Congregation Kolot Chayeinu also gathered. Nicole Fix, a fiction writer and arts organization administrator, attended that informal service. Between 50 and 60 people were there, she said. Together they sang Jewish songs and songs of social justice, and each person turned to another to share one thing that they feared and one thing hoped for. “People were very distraught,” said Fix later. She went because “I didn’t want to be alone at a time like this. I wanted to be with my community, and I felt comforted,” she told Haaretz. The service concluded with the Birkat Hakohanim, or priestly blessing, in which the petitioner asks God to shine His light upon him. It was, she said, “very powerful.”

Cantor Josh Breitzer ended the Beth Elohim gathering by singing the 23rd Psalm, which speaks of depending on God’s guidance through “the valley of the shadow of death” and traditionally sung on Shabbat. It is also sung, as a kind of reassurance, at funerals.

But before he did, Timoner reminded those present of one of Judaism’s central stories. As Israelites in bondage, “we spent 400 years in that narrow place,” as the Torah refers to Egypt. “But it is not the end of the story. We faced an impassable sea” while fleeing Egypt, and then it opened. “No matter how dire it feels, we find a way through, and that can lead to liberation,” she said.

“We need to let ourselves grieve. It’s real. It’s legitimate. It’s needed,” she said. “And then we’re going to figure out what we can do about it. We are going to find a way through this,” said Timoner, “together.”

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