By Michael McDowell
So many mourners showed up at Congregation Ansche Chesed on West 100th Street Sunday night to honor the victims of a mass synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh that they couldn’t all get in. They spilled onto the sidewalk, into the street and around the block, past the Metro Diner at Broadway, and north across 101st Street. Rabbis and other faith leaders led the crowd outside in song, and still more followed along digitally via Facebook Live.
Inside, the synagogue was filled with song, prayer, and a sense of solidarity as neighbors, friends, and strangers alike came together to mourn, to support one another, and to begin to heal. All told, the crowd appeared to number in the thousands.
“We stand with the Tree of Life community in Pittsburgh and we stand with the Tree of Life…We will not be driven from sacred community, we will be driven to sacred community,” began Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, of Ansche Chesed.
Eleven were killed and six injured on Saturday at Congregation Tree of Life in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, in an act of terrorism that occurred during a morning Shabbat service.
“We mourn together the tragic murders of eleven members of our family: Daniel, Joyce, Richard, Rose, Jerry, Cecil, David, Bernice, Sylan, Melvin, and Irving,” eulogized Rabbi Joy Levitt, of JCC Manhattan, which co-organized the vigil, along with Ansche Chesed and numerous other New York congregations.
“Tonight we mourn, tonight we cry, tonight we hold those whom we love a little tighter. And tomorrow we keep working. We resist, we yell, we fight, we find resolve within us, within our tradition, and within one another in this, our strong community, to build a society that is safe, fair, just, and kind. We do not have the luxury of despair.”
Rabbi Rolando Matalon, of B’nai Jeshurun, quoted Abraham Heschel.
“Our world seems not unlike a pit of snakes. We did not sink into the pit in 1939, or even in 1933. We had descended into it generations ago,” Heschel wrote. “The greatest task of our time is to take the human soul out of the pit.”
Rabbi Matalon acknowledged both the shock of such a tragedy as well as its paradoxical familiarity in a country “awash with divisiveness, hatred, and violence.” But, he assured the audience, “nothing, and nobody, will deter us from living openly as Jews in America.”
Elisha Wiesel, son of author and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, offered a practical and nonpartisan answer to the question on the minds of many: how to respond to unspeakable tragedy?
“We all have a role to play in confronting hatred. If you are a Jew who believes in progressive values, then it is your prerogative and your responsibility to fix the left in this country…If you are on the conservative side, as a Jew then it is your prerogative and responsibility to for God’s sake fix the Republican Party…If you somehow find yourself caught in the center, God help you. Expect hatred from all sides. But it is your prerogative and your responsibility to build bridges and create safe spaces where well-meaning and thoughtful people can come together to find solutions. Make this world better where you are.”
Other speakers addressed a different reaction to such tragedy.
“We’re all struggling to find the words to express the depth of our anguish, and our anger, recognizing that every one of those innocent people was targeted for no other reason but being Jewish. Our history has on the one hand prepared us for the idea of Jews being targeted, but on the other hand we thought perhaps that here in America, those days were finally behind us,” said Robert Kapito, of UJA Federation New York. “If you don’t hear anything tonight, hear this: an attack on any Jewish community is an attack on the entire Jewish community.”
Rabbi Saul Berman, of Columbia University, echoed that sentiment. “Self-defense is not just a right; self-defense is a duty,” he said.
Interfaith unity was emphasized throughout the evening, and Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, recalled that the first people who contacted her in the aftermath of the shooting were a Muslim community leader and the pastor of a church in Harlem. “Other pastors and people of other faiths have reached out to me over the last twenty-four hours, and they have said, ‘We have your back. We love you. We are here for you, and we will fight for you.’”
Tree of Life is not the first place of worship to experience a mass shooting, and Rabbi Herrmann invoked the memories of the tragedies at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina; at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City, Canada; and at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Visible security roamed Ansche Chesed during the vigil, and police were stationed outside. Four police officers were injured in Pittsburgh.
“We are not the only targets,” Rabbi Herrmann said. “May God comfort us with the knowledge that we are not alone.”
Bari Khan, of the Muslim Community Network, spoke to the increasing danger and adversity faced by both Jews and Muslims in America.
“The heinous crime that was committed yesterday is further evidence of the hate that our communities face in the current political climate. We stand with our Jewish allies in this moment of tragedy and share a collective solidarity…we condemn any act of hate whether by rhetoric or by action, and we will work even harder to ensure that we create a society where people of any faith or no faith can live together peacefully.”
Song and prayer bookended the vigil, and before reciting a maleh for those killed in Pittsburgh, Rabbi Kalmanofsky quoted a “very modern Jewish poet,” rapper Matisyahu:
One day this all will change
Treat people the same
Stop with the violence
Down with the hate
One day we’ll all be free
And proud to be
Under the same sun
Singing songs of freedom
Rabbi Kalmanofsky acknowledged a number of those in the congregation who were personally impacted by the events in Pittsburgh, and asked those with a personal connection to one of the victims to stand and signify; nearly a dozen did so. In an emotional moment, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, of the Park Avenue Synagogue, told the audience “the Tree of Life synagogue [is] a community I know well, married as I am to a daughter of Squirrel Hill.”
Earlier, I had the chance to talk briefly with Rabbi Abigail Treu, of JCC Manhattan. I asked her the meaning of one of the songs, which had seemed particularly poignant.
“The world is a narrow bridge”—Kol haolam kulo,” she translated.
“The important thing is not to be afraid,” the verse concludes.