“There are no words,” said Rabbi Daniel Geffen to the overflow throng of people—Jews and those of other faiths—gathered last week for a “Vigil For The Pittsburgh Jewish Community.”
“I have uttered this phrase many times in my life, but never more than I have over the last few days,” said Rabbi Geffen at the vigil at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons in East Hampton, New York.
Rabbi Geffen, of Temple Adas Israel in nearby Sag Harbor, Long Island’s oldest synagogue, continued: “Although it is unquestionably trite, and unabashedly unhelpful, these are the words I return to because they speak a sad truth. There are no words to describe what took place at The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last Shabbat. There are no words to define the anguish and pain that we are feeling. No words capable of offering the kind of comfort all of us so desperately need,”
“And yet, here we are,” he went on, “searching precisely for the orchestrated locutions that will somehow both console and inspire us; to reflect and refract the complexity of both our emotional and rational states of mind.”
“First and foremost, we think of the lives that have been taken. We think of 11 individuals, each with their own story. Each with families and friends and a community that will never see them again. They are not numbers or means for political fodder, they were human beings whose lives were extinguished solely for the fact that they were Jews.”
“Though few, if any of us here tonight knew them, we feel as if we did. Such is the remarkable bond that connects us all in times of loss. The wounds feel gaping tonight; beyond the ability for any salve or suture to seal with ease,” he went on, sometimes his voice breaking with emotion.
“I also know that pain is often followed by fear; and surely many of us tonight are scared. Some of us are feeling that fear only now, shocked that such an act could take place in this country, in this era and in a house of worship. Others of us have been feeling this fear for some time, as we have observed the tides of hatred, racism, sexism, bigotry and anti-Semitism rising in front of us.”
“Certainly, this fear is understandable,” he said. “On the one hand, Pittsburgh feels 500 miles and a world away, and yet at the same time it feels like it is just down the road. I would be lying if I said I have not been jolted awake in the darkest moments of the night, with the thought of my own family, my own community in the crosshairs. These fears are visceral and they touch the very deepest recesses of our minds and hearts. It does not take much for that fear to grow and to feel like a boulder resting upon the chest.”
“To fear is human,” Rabbi Geffen said, “And in our most fearful moments, a voice inside cries out to us to hide. To put up bigger walls, to surround ourselves with sword and shield and to view our neighbors and strangers alike with suspicion and apprehension. It is a natural response. One that can easily be justified by circumstance as much as emotion.”
“But,” he stressed, “despite all its rationality and acceptable cause, fear is not what we need right now. Fear will not help us to remember the victims, nor console their families and friends. Fear will not help us to rebuild the Tree of Life, nor will it help us to counter hatred. Fear did not keep us home tonight and it cannot be allowed to keep us from returning to our synagogues, our churches, mosques, temples and schools.”
“What is needed tonight and tomorrow and the day after,” Rabbi Geffen declared, “is love, compassion, understanding and, ultimately, action.”
“After we have grieved and shed all the tears we possess, then we must concern ourselves with combating both the ways and the means by which hatred is spread. We must address the ways in which we allow our society and our world to hate with such ferocity and the means by which a single person can act on their hate with such unchecked devastation.”
“Yes,” the rabbi continued, “we must first grieve and, yes, we must first heal; no one is debating these necessities. Indeed, this is the primary reason we have gathered here tonight. But our tradition does not allow us to grieve forever. And when we eventually rise up from the floor, remove our sackcloth and dust off the ashes, we must be prepared to combat the evil that is growing right under our noses. If we do not, it is a question of when, not if another attack will come. And that is simply unacceptable.”
“Sadly,” Rabbi Geffen said, “for many of us it took this heinous act to force us to pay attention to what is happening in our world. But it is essential that we not just pay attention to the threats around us, but also to the opportunities for healing and bridge-building. Not just to the dangers, and the hatred, and the evil, but also to pay attention to the outpouring of love and support in the wake of this tragedy—exemplified by our gathering here tonight.”
The vigil on November 1st was sponsored by the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, Temple Adas Israel and the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons.
It opened with a welcome from Rabbi Joshua Franklin of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons. The sanctuary was packed with people, all seats were taken and many people stood along the sides of the synagogue and many in the hall outside and in the synagogue’s basement who watched the vigil on television. There were 800 or more people there.
“Wow,” said Rabbi Franklin about the attendance. He said he was “quite blown away” by the turnout. “The world is much smaller than we think, and I think that’s why we’re all here,” Rabbi Franklin said. “Being here, we get to see the beauty of community.”
East Hampton Mayor Paul Rickenbach, Jr. then spoke, telling of how “eleven lives were snuffed out because of bigotry….This has to change and it’s going to take each and every one of us.”
“East Hampton stands in solidarity with the Jewish community,” declared the mayor, a Christian and former police officer.
There were other public officials at the vigil including New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor and candidates for public office including Perry Gershon, the Democratic nominee to run for Congress from eastern Long Island and a member of Temple Adas Israel.
Cantor/Rabbi Debra Stein of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons led the singing of “Let There Be Love.”
Rabbi Franklin then spoke again telling how what happened in Pittsburgh “could happen to any of us.”
“Jews have a long history of being hated, persecuted,” said Rabbi Franklin.
He asked whether anti-Semitism “is the new normal once again.” The answer, he said, is “no—look around the room, this is the new normal”—Jews with people of other faiths “coming together…supporting one another. This is our new normal,” said Rabbi Franklin.
But, he said, anti-Semitism is afoot, “loud and extreme” in the United States. Acts of anti-Semitism in the U.S. rose 57 percent in 2017, he noted. He spoke of the “neo-Nazi group” that marched last year in a torchlight parade in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
“It reminded us,” he said, “of Nazi Germany.”
Rabbi Franklin said “we must make sure that anti-Semitism and racism of all kinds stay on the margins.”
Then there was the lighting of candles for the eleven Jews murdered in Pittsburgh. Christian ministers lit the candles. And then East Hampton Village Police Chief Michael Tracey lit a candle for the six Pittsburgh police officers shot and wounded by the Pittsburgh killer, a Nazi sympathizer.
The vigil ended with the Mourner’s Kaddish and many wet eyes.