Remembering the Tree of Life

Remembering the Tree of Life

Solidarity Shabbat planned on first anniversary of Pittsburgh massacre

A Jewish family pauses in front of a memorial for victims of the mass shooting that killed 11 people at the Tree Of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oct. 29, 2018. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
A Jewish family pauses in front of a memorial for victims of the mass shooting that killed 11 people at the Tree Of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oct. 29, 2018. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

October 27 will mark exactly one year since the murderer yelled “All Jews must die” and opened fire at the Tree of Life — Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh during Shabbat morning services.

The gunman, Robert Gregory Bowers, killed 11 congregants and wounded six people, including four police officers, in the deadliest attack ever on a Jewish community in the United States.

Jason Shames, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, said he never will forget that day.

“I was at a family event and suddenly, my phone kept buzzing,” he said. “I knew something awful happened when the calls were from various law enforcement officials all contacting me to see how they could help.

“It was the beginning of a whole new protocol for all of our institutions.”

Indeed, the Pittsburgh massacre marked the beginning of a new normal for Jewish institutions that includes security guards, locked doors, and active-shooter training drills.

The federation hired Jerry Dargan, the former captain of the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office criminal investigations division, as its first Jewish Community Security Director. Mr. Dargan helps synagogues and day schools formulate security plans in coordination with law-enforcement agencies. He also would serve as a liaison during any crisis response and mitigation efforts.

But on the anniversary of that horrific event in Pittsburgh, the focus of the Jewish Federations of North America is on the people: the victims; the bereaved families and friends left to grapple with shock and loss; and Jews everywhere, whose world feels a bit less safe than it did on October 26, 2018.

Many synagogues across the country will share that focus by participating in Solidarity Shabbat, October 25-26. The theme of the special Shabbat is “Recall the tragedy, strengthen our resilience, renew our commitment.”

Rabbi Rachel Steiner of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes emphasized that “Our remembrance of what happened in Pittsburgh is not isolated to this special Shabbat.”

During the Yom Kippur Yizkor service this year she read the names of the victims — Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger — and lit a candle in their memory. Those joined the seven candles that are part of the Yizkor ceremony outlined in the new Reform machzor.

“I’m sure that on Solidarity Shabbat we will light a Yizkor candle again in their names,” Rabbi Steiner said. “It will be a life-affirming Shabbat service, as we are getting ready to celebrate the first bat mitzvah of the new Jewish year.”

Rabbi David Seth Kirshner of Closter’s Temple Emanu-El said his sermon for Solidarity Shabbat will be on the topic of vulnerability, touching on the Tree of Life shooting and the April 27 shooting at Chabad of Poway in California, where one person was killed and three were injured by another murderer, John Timothy Earnest.

Noting that Temple Emanu-El now spends 13 percent of its budget on security, Rabbi Kirshner said that his High Holidays sermon also dealt with mass shootings in America.

He pointed out to his congregants that Americans between 15 to 24 years old are 50 times more likely to die by gun violence than are their peers in any other economically advanced country. In the year 2017, he told them, gun-related deaths surpassed motor vehicle deaths in America for the first time, claiming nearly 40,000 lives.

And at the time of his sermon, he counted 305 mass shootings in 2019.

“There is an epidemic in our country and each day we do nothing, each time we roll our eyes at the news and pray that these incidents are far away, we only fuel the problem more,” Rabbi Kirshner told his congregants.

One of the most moving hymns in the High Holidays liturgy is “Unetaneh Tokef,” written about 1,000 years ago. The poem says that a person’s fate is written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur. Among its famous lines: Who will live and who will die? Who will rest and who will wander? Who will have serenity and who will be tormented? Who will become poor and who will become rich?

In his sermon, Rabbi Kirshner shared his own version of the hymn, referencing mass shootings over the past year — the August 3 incident at Walmart in El Paso in which 22 people were killed and 24 injured; the August 4 shooting in a Dayton, Ohio, bar that killed nine and injured 27; and the Pittsburgh and Poway shul attacks.

“Who was a Sabbath regular in Pittsburgh and always arrived early like Rose Mallinger?

“And who came that Shabbat to celebrate the naming of a baby girl, like past President Michael Rosenberg?

“Who came to lead a service, like Melvin Wax at the New Light Service in Pittsburgh?

“And who came to participate in a service like Joyce Fineberg did at the Tree of Life?

“Who greeted the assailant with a siddur and a welcoming handshake, not knowing he was the shooter, like Cecil and David Rosenthal did? … And who heard the shots and hid in a closet and survived, like Barry Werber?”

Rabbi Kirshner said that he intended his version of Unetaneh Tokef” as a “modern-day call to action. Let the potency of the words shake our souls today and most importantly let us use these words to shape a better and safer tomorrow,” he said, pledging to lobby legislators, increase awareness, and “vote with consideration to this topic.”

“Nothing can erase what happened one year ago,” said Eric Fingerhut, the president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America. “But we can choose to stand even stronger and strive even further to demonstrate our resilience and strength as a people.”

For information about Solidarity Shabbat, call the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey at (201) 820-3936.

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