Remembering Pittsburgh in Bergen County
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Remembering Pittsburgh in Bergen County

Kaplen JCC one of many local Jewish institutions that hosted meetings

By now, we all know what happened last Shabbat in Pittsburgh.

A man carrying three handguns and an assault rifle walked into services and slaughtered 11 people; he wounded six others. All of the dead — eight men and three women — were Jews, in shul as they always were on Shabbat morning, and so were two of the wounded. The other four wounded men were police officers, who had rushed in to save the victims.

The murderer is a virulent anti-Semite, a loner (“keeps himself to himself,” as the old formula goes), a loser, a hater who went way down the internet rabbit holes about global conspiracy aimed at displacing white men from their rightful positions atop the world.

We also know that not only did the Jewish community mourn, but so too did most of the rest of America.

Both locally and across the country, Jews and non-Jews have been joining to mourn, rally, and take strength from each other. There have been solemn gatherings across northern New Jersey and Rockland County, in Paramus, Teaneck, Glen Rock, Wayne, Woodcliffe Lake, Park Ridge, West Nyack, and probably many other places as well.

On Monday night, at perhaps the largest Bergen County assembly, more than 1,000 people showed up, with very little notice, to grieve together at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly together. They filled all the chairs in the big downstairs room, and then all the available space to stand in, and then they overflowed into the gym, where they watched as the talks were livestreamed onto large monitors. They stayed although it was late, and increasingly hot. They wanted to be counted.

The evening drew many local politicians, Jewish religious and lay leaders, and leaders of other religions. The speakers included Jason Shames, the head of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and Roberta Abrams, its president, as well as the JCC’s CEO, Jordan Shenker, and its board chair, Jodi Scherl; Rabbi Chaim Poupko, the president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, and Rabbi David-Seth Kirschner, president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, among many other rabbis.

Joseph William Cardinal Tobin, who has a striking presence and a deep, resonant voice, spoke; he stressed gun safety, and quoted from “Bread and Wine,” a 1936 Italian novel about the dangers of fascism. In that seminal book, he said, when one character said that the armies of the night were approaching, bringing death, and they would be unstoppable. No, the cardinal quoted the fictional priest as saying. It just takes one person going down to the town square in the middle of the night, “scrawling no. It’s the divine no,” he said.

The area’s two members of Congress, both Democrats, spoke; both the Fifth District’s Josh Gottheimer and the Ninth District’s Bill Pascrell talked about unity in the face of anti-Semitism and hatred. Mr. Gottheimer also said that the rate of anti-Semitic incidents has gone up by 57 percent, as reported by the ADL, and he talked about some nasty incidents involving his campaign signs, which carry “my Jewish name,” he said.

Four of the six women who spoke read obituaries of the 11 victims who were murdered in Pittsburg; the obituaries were long, detailed, and respectful.

Harley Unger of Englewood talked about her childhood in Pittsburgh, the wonderfully haimish place that she loved and whose losses she felt personally. Rabbi Debra Orenstein talked about the future, with a combination of resignation and hope.

Cory Booker, New Jersey’s junior senator, also a Democrat, gave an impassioned speech. He is a charismatic and eloquent orator; although the occasion was grim listening to him is a pleasure. (He is such a gifted speaker that it probably would be marvelous hearing him read a math textbook or a computer manual.) His longtime comfort in the Jewish community was clear; he quoted Josephus and the Talmud and the rabbis and cited the bonds that once tied the African-American and Jewish communities closely to each other.

The audience was mixed; there were people who had come straight from work, formally dressed, and others who had come from the JCC’s gym, some barely dressed. Most of the people there were Jewish, but there were Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Sikhs, Jains, and an eastern Orthodox cleric in a spectacular green cassock. Each person was there for his or her own specific mix of fear, anger, curiosity, and hope, but it was a big group, willingly open to the range of speakers, looking toward better days.

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