I showed up for Shabbat in Pittsburgh

The crowd that filled the synagogue gives me hope that we are indeed 'stronger than hate'
A casket is carried out of Rodef Shalom Congregation after the funeral services for brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, in Pittsburgh. Oct. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
A casket is carried out of Rodef Shalom Congregation after the funeral services for brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, in Pittsburgh. Oct. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

It was like entering one big shiva house. Not only is the Jewish community in shock and mourning, but the entire city of Pittsburgh is too. You see it on people’s faces. You hear it in their speech. You feel it in their hugs.

The shock of the horrific anti-Semitic murders that took place the previous Shabbat is not limited to Pittsburgh. Jews all over the world are equally impacted by the shock and pain of discovering that such an act of hate can occur in 21st century America only 80 years after the horrors of the Holocaust. This act calls into question any sense of security we have experienced in this country, a country that stands for religious freedom and equality. This horrendous act shocks us because it is a stark reminder that hateful speech inevitably leads to hateful acts. Today’s society and leadership view hate speech and vilification of our fellow humans as a norm, which is worrisome but not surprising. Each and everyday we are forced to worry about future incidents.

The city mourns. Squirrel Hill, a historic Jewish community, is home to many Jews of all walks of life. That means that there is often only 1 degree of separation. Most of the neighborhood was connected to the 11 deceased in some form. 11 funerals in one week; 11 lives stolen, the city mourns. We all mourn.

I decided to show up for Shabbat to pay a shiva call and see my friends, Rabbi Jeff Myers, the rabbi of Tree of Life and Jeff Finkelstein the CEO of Federation. I was able to express my condolences and offer hizuk (support) to some of the family of the mourners, my colleagues and members of the community.

I wasn’t the only one who showed up, and that’s what ultimately gives me hope that we are indeed “stronger than hate.”

Friday night I prayed Kabbalat Shabbat with Tree of Life hosted by Rodef Shalom a local Reform synagogue. 500 others showed up too, including Muslim families, African American clergy and parishioners, and Catholics, and Jews from every part of the community, including Israel. We were all there together supporting the Tree of Life community and each other.

On Saturday morning, Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill hosted a community Shabbat experience. Fifteen hundred people were there to #ShowUpForShabbat. There were several moving moments. At 9:52am, the time the shooter entered Tree of Life, we rose and were silent for one minute  and 11 seconds. We uttered the loud chant of Shema Yisrael, Am Yisrael Hai (The People of Israel Live) and Etz Hayim Hee (It is a Tree of Life) as the Torah was paraded around the sanctuary. Survivors were honored with the first Torah aliyah as The USY Religious Education VP of Beth Shalom chanted; the words of Torah shared. These were uplifting moments, a perfect response to this hateful act. We are hurt, but not destroyed. We are stronger together.

Saturday night about 250 teens showed up for Shabbat and for each other. Havdalah is the ceremony by which we mark separations — the separation between what is holy and ordinary. One of the teens, a local USY leader, was the grand-nephew of one of the people murdered. He shared his feelings while everyone listened in awe. Others spoke too, about supporting each other, about creating a world without hate, and about holding our leaders and ourselves accountable for our words and our actions. It was deeply moving watching this space come to life so soon after the horrors it endured.

Love. Mercy. Kindness. Compassion. Resiliency. Community. Jews and neighbors of all faiths showed up for Shabbat, not only in Pittsburgh, but in synagogues all over the world.

The Torah teaches us, God does not command Moses to build a Tabernacle because God needs a home. Rather the Tabernacle is built for human beings to have a focal point of God’s presence among them as the Torah says: v’shakhanti b’tocham — “And I will dwell among them.” (Ex. 29:45). God dwells wherever we let God in; wherever we show up to act with godliness. So by showing up for Shabbat in such a profound and diverse way, whether in Pittsburgh or elsewhere, God too showed up.

And in times such as these, that’s a presence we need to continue to nurture.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven C. Wernick is CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
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