By Jan Worth-Nelson
Steven Low, executive director of the Flint Jewish Federation, said he expected 75 people or so for the night’s vigil for the eleven dead in Pittsburgh. Instead, cars arriving at Temple Beth El on Calkins Road quickly filled the parking lot, and then filled the parking lot of the Baptist church across the street. Inside, close to 400 people crowded in, with TV cameras pushed further to the back of the room to accommodate more chairs.
The crowd — representing Jews, Muslims, Christian, black and white — came together through song, scripture, prayers for the dead and comments from religious leaders. They joined in as Temple Beth El Rabbi Jeff Ableser declared, “Together we will repudiate hatred and bigotry against all minorities, to work toward a common vision of safety for all, a vision of shalom.”
Other speakers echoed the theme, calling for love and the unity of “the human family.”
Of the murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Ableser said, “We are shaken to our very core.” Security was evident, both on the street and at the entrance to the synagogue, reflecting a fear by some, Ableser said, of future attacks by copycats.
“When 11 Jews die at the hands of a murderer, we are filled with intense competing emotions. We are first of all shocked that this could happen in this country.
“The United States has been a safe haven for Jews since the time of George Washington–we have prospered and have become an integral part of American society.”
And yet, he noted, today the community must mourn its dead, “people who were murdered simply because they were Jewish.”
Rabbi Yisroel Weingarten, from the Chabad House Lubavitch of Eastern Michigan,said, “We struggle to wrap our minds around it. We can’t fathom the depths of the loss of the precious holy souls.
“This is an attack on all of the American people and on all of humanity,” he said. “But we must also resort to the age-honored Jewish response that answers darkness and evil with goodness and light.
And, he called for translating feelings of grief and sadness into action.
“One action is better than a thousand sighs,” he said. “What is the remedy for such senseless hatred? What can we possibly do to eradicate it?
The answer, he said, is this: “Hatred can be uprooted from its core by saturating our world with wanton love–pure, undiscriminating, uninhibited, unyielding love and acts of kindness. Today more than ever we need to stress love and unity, positivity and light…even as we grieve and mourn, We must exponentially increase our acts of kindness and goodness.”
And alluding perhaps to the current divisive climate, Weingarten said, “We are all one family — this is the right time to reach out to someone we disagree with or have grown apart from.”
The director of the Flint Islamic Center, Shaykh Abdullah Waheed drew applause from the crowd when he declared, “We are standing shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish Community. We will not let hate divide us.”
“What the world wants to do with us is divide us on ethnicity, our religion, our race, our culture, even sometimes our food. But that won’t happen. We know we’re far better than this. We echo one sentiment against hate, which is love.”
Pastor Alfred Harris, from Saints of God Church and president of Concerned Pastors for Social Action said, “When I look at who is here, all I see is a human family. I wish we would learn that we are all one family,” he said, adding, “we must personify our love in action.”
Citing other mass murders in recent years–the Pulse Nightclub shooting, the Las Vegas Massacre and others, Harris said, “I know you think we’ve hit rock bottom, but we always come back. We never lose hope, we never give up. We still believe love can overcome hate.”
After the speeches, Ableser read the names of the 11 Pittsburgh victims and the congregation stood for a prayer called Kaddish, first in Hebrew and then in English. The essence of the prayer, Ableser said is, “When we are shaken to our core by evil, there is only one true constant, and that constant is God.”
The service ended with 400 people, some visibly emotional, singing “God Bless America” together. Ableser noted it was written by a Jewish immigrant, Irving Berlin.
“It’s great to see people coming together like this,” Congressman Dan Kildee said before the event began. “It’s terrible that it has to be under these circumstances, but at the end of all this, we’ve got to figure out a way to defeat hate–this can’t go on. We have to take the opportunity to make change when we can.”
Afterwards, Rabbi Ableser said, “What can I say, this has been a very difficult week, but it was very gratifying for people to come here to share in our mourning and to share in solidarity against that kind of hate.”
“Everyone in this room knows that humanity is created in the image of God,” Rabbi Weingarten commented after the service. “If that doesn’t give us the definition that we should focus on what unites us rather than what divides us, then we have wasted our time here tonight.”
Steven Low called the response “unbelievable,” especially from the wider community. “It would be one thing if the Jewish community came together and made a commitment. But when the other faith groups come out and support us, it really means that it’s something real that affects all of us–it’s so important for us to support one another.”
Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.