Enormous Crowd Packs Synagogue and Spills into Street to Mourn Shooting Victims; An Attack ‘On the Entire Jewish Community’

Photo by Ashira Konigsburg.

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.”

Photo by Ashira Konigsburg.

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.”

Photo by Ashira Konigsburg.

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.

Photo by Michael McDowell.

“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.

NEWS | 26 comments | permalink
    1. Thank you for your excellent reporting. This was a powerful evening and your report conveyed this well.

    2. Roger Wolfe says:

      In view of many such incidents in the past few years, develop a dialogue about our similarities and common humanity. Reach out to other communities and please, please VOTE on Election Day!
      Please don’t accept violence and hate as an acceptable norm.

      • Dissident says:

        and please, please VOTE on Election Day!

        Whew!, that was fast. Didn’t waste a minute in politicizing this tragedy, did you?

        Oh well. At least Elisha Wiesel, quoted in the article above, clearly took great care that not even the slightest hint of partisan bias could be detected in his words…

        Compare and contrast the parts I highlighted in the quote below.

        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

        • Bruce E. Bernstein says:

          the poisonous rhetoric of the right wing and Trump on immigration — the caravan of “invaders” — served as the direct motivation of this massacre.

          Perhaps the anti-semitic, racist murderer would have done something like this anyhow. But in fact, in this case, he did it as a response to the anti-immigrant propaganda.

          no, sir, the left had nothing to do with this.

        • NotImpressed says:

          Dissident, if you want to live in a fantasy world where you don’t think events like this are related to political figures and policies, enjoy lala land.
          Those of us who function within the confines of reality understand that it is indeed political.

        • Sarah says:

          The comment didn’t say whom to vote for, only *to* vote. Your assumption that voting is somehow inherently a partisan activity of Democrats is telling on yourself pretty darn hard.

          • EricaC says:

            Exactly – he said vote. He said don’t let hate become normal. It was you that concluded he must want to be rid of Republicans.

        • Larry Warmflash says:

          I noticed that while I was there. When he delivered the line “for G’s sake, fix the Republican party”, there was plenty of applause. Maybe not the majority of the audience did so, but it enough to make it the applause line of the night.

    3. Catherine Brooks says:

      Thanks for this.

    4. Katherine Bouton says:

      This is so moving. Thank you for posting at such length for neighbors who couldn’t be there.

    5. Shirley Z says:

      Thank you for sharing this report& healing message. I am sad, but not afraid.

    6. June says:

      I’m so glad I saw this report as I was not able to attend the vigil. Thank you

    7. Pedestrian says:

      An attack on members of the Jewish Community is an attack on us all.

    8. Marilyn Fern Elkin says:

      My grandfather, aunts, uncles and cousins all worshipped at Ansche Chesed and I joined them all through my childhood. Rabbi Kalmanofsky led the funeral of my aunt right after 9/11 and he impressed me with his humanity and humility. Seeing the shul packed with the community – which had dwindled in the ’60s – brought back good memories. It’s this strength and commitment which will keep us together through tragedy.

    9. robert says:

      Enough with the UWS progressive crap.
      As the son of a WWII vet that fought all six years, 1939 thru to 1945. And had 95% of the family that stayed in Poland & Latvia killed, enough already. The guy who did this was and is a nut long before Trump. He has a long history of anti a lot of things INCULDING being anti Trump. The sad thing again is the PC culture we live in. As in many other incidents he was posting things on social media that should have raised red flags. This was not just on right wing sites but on Facebook, twitter etc. Yet no one reported it.

      And before anyone starts with the “ban the guns” pedal on the organ, a guard would have most likely been able to stop him. Without getting into details, many places in NYC & around the world have armed security that you would never notice. Their dress/ hair etc is so that they blend in. This includes several UWS houses of worship.

      This was and will continue to be a tragedy for these families forever. But if you see, hear something etc SAY something. We have become to afraid of “offending” someone.

      • Juan says:

        Trump has enabled people like this so that they can act on their warped beliefs. It is very simplistic to believe otherwise.

        The fact that people think that we should have armed guards at all places of worship shows how disturbed our society is. This should not even be something we should have to be considering – security should be the last things on our minds when praying.

        And who, pray tell, should pay for all of these armed guards. We are fortunate to live in the wealthy bubble of New York where many congregations can afford such things. Most religious organizations are barely making ends meet and don’t have the money for this. Unless President Trump wants to divert some of the money he wants to spend building a wall to pay for it…

        • robert says:

          There are DHS grants and the city and state both have grants and funds available for this since before 09/11 There are a groups of houses of worship an/or facilities with specific religious connections that have been receiving this $$$$ for years. They just don’t talk about it, as they should not disclose what they have done to harden there sites. These grants have been use to placed bollards to other additional security that i will not ID here in a public forum.

          • dannyboy says:

            But robert, Juan makes a very good point: “The fact that people think that we should have armed guards at all places of worship shows how disturbed our society is. This should not even be something we should have to be considering – security should be the last things on our minds when praying.”

            This is a sanctified space, a holy place, for prayer and communion. Guns don’t belong.

      • EricaC says:

        Interesting that he was able to shoot three SWAT agents, but “a guard” could have stopped him.

        And “enough” with the references to PC. It is way past old as a battle cry for people who just want to be free to say any old thing that comes into their heads without thought for the impact on others. I challenge you to find a “PC” advocate who would say not to report someone for making death threats out of fear of offending someone.

        Yes, he is a nut. Yes, he would probably have liked to do any number of things. But yes, there is a rising tide of violence, amidst a rising tide of vicious commentary.

        Your father fought, not you. Your family was killed, not you. Their service and suffering are not credentials for you.

        I do see something – a President who couldn’t even stop campaigning long enough to mourn, a spokeswoman for the president who blamed this on “anti-religiosity”, a never-ending flood of lunatic fringe commentary coming from our purported leaders. And I will say something. As I have here.

        • robert says:

          The officers shot were shot as the arrived outside from inside the building, and then as he retreated into the building. A guard at the entrance would have seen the AR 15 and responded accordingly.

          • EricaC says:

            Of course. If there had been a guard, with enough guns, all would be well.

            Magical thinking. Like parents who think if the get every safety device, nothing bad can happen to their children.

        • Bruce E. Bernstein says:

          very well said, Erica. thank you.

      • EricaC says:

        The fact of the matter is that we all know that there is a certain number of nut cases in the world, waiting for any provocation. That is why responsible presidents do not talk about the press as the enemies of the people, they do not lead large crowds of people in chance of lock her up, they do not talk about globalism and use other euphemisms for the global Jewish conspiracy, and so forth. It isn’t that their aren’t crazy people out there. There areThat is the point. We all know it, and a president with his salt would act accordingly.

        • EricaC says:

          Apologies for the typos; dictation is not perfect yet.

        • robert says:

          Being anti globalization is not a euphemisms for a global Jewish conspiracy. Its a political belief that any nation should have the last say over there sovereignty. Globalization has good and bad points it is not a one size fits all political issue. Lumping these to issues together is a very big stretch. Its like saying people that voted for Trump where all racist, when millions of people and counties and states that went for Obama twice wet for Trump.