PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania — A week after an anti-Semitic shooter massacred 11 worshipers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, the community embraced each other in prayer on Saturday.
Coming in from a gray chilly drizzle in Squirrel Hill neighborhood, Jews this Sabbath arrived at Beth Shalom synagogue as a statement of the community’s determined continuation of Jewish life.
In a Jewish community known for its good interdenominational relations, the three communities unhoused by the shooting were absorbed into a sister Conservative community, one of some dozen synagogues in the Squirrel Hill’s “urban shtetl” near the heart of Pittsburgh’s college district.
After lay leader Audrey Glickman led initial morning prayers, the community observed one minute and 11 seconds of silence.
“It was at 9:52 last Shabbat that Rabbi Jeffrey Myers placed the 911 call,” Rabbi Danny Schiff announced, asking all to rise. He asked the community to move forward and join each other physically as well as spiritually. Dozens answered, forming a visible unified block in the huge sanctuary.
But the emotional pinnacle of the service came at the sermon: Wearing a rainbow-striped prayer shawl, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers took the podium and talked about the weekly Bible portion. He said loudly, “For those who rejected that President Trump came, I will not let anyone tell me how to welcome a guest in my house.” He was referring to the immense blowback from the liberal-leaning American Jewish community at his decision to welcome Trump this week.
“As a Jew and as a religious leader you show respect and welcome, that is why I welcomed President Trump,” he said.
He said he took Trump and his wife Melania to the Tree of Life, which is still a crime scene and will be for a long time. “You don’t want to go in there. The image is permanently seared in my brain,” he said to the congregation on Saturday.
Myers said that during Tuesday’s visit, the US president placed his hand on the rabbi’s shoulder and asked him how he is doing.
“I am one of the few people alive who witnessed compassion and love from the president of the United States. And here’s the problem with that: I received hate mail for that,” he said on Saturday, adding that he forwarded the hate letters to Brad Orsini, security chief at the Pittsburgh Federation.
“You can’t fight any hate with more hate,” said Myers. “Mathematically that doesn’t work. There’s only one zip code that doesn’t know it and that’s in Washington, DC.”
“I told the president, ‘Hate speech begets more hate speech.’ I do not voice blame on the president or any one person. The message was, ‘Stop the hate speech,’” said Myers, whose speech was received with a standing ovation and applause.
Head of the Jewish Agency Isaac Herzog and Dani Dayan, consul-general of Israel in New York, attended services.
“What we’ve seen from Pittsburgh is an incredible Jewish community… When I saw all of us sing together ‘Shema Yisrael,’ this is the most impressive answer for that evil man who walked into the sanctuary and said, ‘Death to the Jews,’” said Herzog.
Herzog commended the community for its resilience and deep expression of peace. “May we all be together here and in Jerusalem,” said Herzog.
When every word has added resonance
During the three-and-a-half hour service, women and men wearing yarmulkes and prayer shawls sat together, singing the Shabbat morning service in one voice: “Arise Lord, May your enemies be scattered, May your foes be put to flight.”
As the Torah scrolls were paraded through the sanctuary, the congregation sang “Etz Hayim” (Tree of Life) and other songs proclaiming the people of Israel’s eternal nature. The scroll reached the bimah as the congregation full-throatedly sang one of the psalms that had been sung for hours at a solidarity march on Tuesday.
A tearful female congregant Beth Kissileff, the wife of Rabbi Jonathan Pearlman, a survivor of the attack, took to the podium and in the midst of her words, shouted out, “Of course people are still going to come to shul [synagogue].”
“We have to remember their lives, and the lives the people lived. These are the people who came to shul first!” Kissileff said, and their devotion needs to be remembered.
“Our theology is that God gives people free will and human beings decide to do evil. But our job is that human beings who choose to do evil do not have access to assault rifles,” said Kissileff to huge applause.
“The way we know the world is not coming to an end is the righteous gentiles. I am so grateful for all the righteous gentiles here today,” Kissileff said.
All of the survivors of last week’s carnage were called to the podium before the first portion of the Torah reading. Some dozen men and women blessed the Torah before a young woman read the first section. Together, they recited the Prayer Birkat Hagomel, for those who have survived dangerous incidents.
For the following blessings, the leadership of Dor Chadash, the Reconstructionist congregation that shared space at Tree of Life, Tree of Life leadership, and New Light, a second Conservative congregation in the Tree of Life building, were called up to the podium for the Torah readings, which were chanted by two women and a man.
A prayer for healing of the ill and injured was sung together by the congregation in Hebrew and English. Seated, the congregations recited the traditional Diaspora “Prayer for Our Country.” Then standing, they prayed in Hebrew for the State of Israel. (At the end of the service, Israel’s national anthem “Hatikva” was also sung.)
Following the blessing of the new month of Kislev, the cantor sang a portion of a Hanukkah song which speaks to driving out darkness with light.
The Torah was returned to the ark to the incongruously slow strains of “Am Yisrael Chai,” (The People of Israel Live), a folk tune usually sung quickly. And again, with special emphasis, they recited, “The Tree of Life,” the passage from which the attacked synagogue takes its name. “It is a Tree of Life for those who grasp it, and those who uphold it are blessed… renew our lives as in days of old.”
Before the Mourner’s Kaddish, each of the names of the victims from the three bereft congregations was read out, as well as the names of beloved dead who died this day in previous years.
While it is customary for only those whose relatives have died to stand, the entire community rose to its feet.
Urging the hall to stand, Tree of Life rabbi Myers said, “We’re a community of mourners.”