First Person: After Pittsburgh, prayer as an act of defiance

As I walked into the foyer of the synagogue on Saturday morning, I was greeted by a posterboard bearing the names and faces of the 11 innocent Jewish souls murdered last week in Pittsburgh.

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November 4, 2018 09:21
3 minute read.
First Person: After Pittsburgh, prayer as an act of defiance

Worshippers attend a "Show Up For Shabbat" service at JCC Harlem following last Saturday's shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, in Pittsburgh, in Manhattan, New York, November 3, 2018. (photo credit: ANDREW KELLY / REUTERS)

TEANECK, New Jersey – For as long as I can remember, there have been security guards posted both inside and outside my parents’ synagogue in Teaneck, New Jersey. They’re a fixture of Shabbat – a sight as expected as men in tallitot walking into the sanctuary and small children dashing through the hallways.

But walking past those men and women this Saturday morning was a stark and gut-wrenching reminder of the events of last weekend. And it was a painful and depressing indication of the need to provide protection to American Jews while they worship.

I have never encountered security while attending services in Jerusalem; but it is always more than likely that several congregants are armed. In Israel, Jews gathered anywhere at any time are a target for terrorist murderers. In the United States, a madman violated the sanctity of a synagogue to target Jewish people in the most cruel and heartbreaking way imaginable.

As I walked into the foyer of the synagogue on Saturday morning, I was greeted by a posterboard bearing the names and faces of the 11 innocent Jewish souls murdered last week in Pittsburgh. Just beyond that was another board, featuring the smiling face of a bar mitzvah boy celebrating a milestone birthday this weekend.

In even the darkest periods of mourning, Jewish life goes on. And inside that sanctuary, joy and pain mingled during the first Shabbat morning services since the deadliest attack on the American Jewish community in memory.

As a police car blocked the entrance to the synagogue’s parking lot, little girls handed out candy bags to congregants to lob at the bar mitzvah boy. As the 13-year-old recited his Torah portion, a volunteer guard patrolled the perimeter of the building. And as the rabbi finished his sermon, the mayor of Teaneck – Mohammed Hameeduddin – showed up to send a silent message of support. At times it was standing-room only in the 600-seat sanctuary at just one of the three services held in the building that morning.

ACROSS THE United States on Saturday, many Jews returned to synagogues for the first time since a monster opened fire in a synagogue in Pittsburgh murdering 11 Jews while they were praying. Around the country, many of those who aren’t regular attendees showed up as a sign of solidarity with the Tree of Life Synagogue and with the American Jewish community as a whole. The American Jewish Committee started the campaign #ShowUpforShabbat, urging people to join services somewhere this weekend. The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey called for a “Solidarity Shabbat” – and 80 Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Chabad synagogues signed on. The Brandeis University Hillel invited the entire community to Friday night services and dinner. The president of the Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn called on community members to wear a tallit on the street as they walked to synagogue. In Los Angeles, Jewish Mayor Eric Garcetti spoke at an interfaith event at a temple in the city on Friday evening.

I asked friends and family around the US about their experiences on Shabbat – both those who normally attend synagogue and others who chose specifically to turn up this week.

What they described paints a picture of a Jewish community shaken, but resolute. Synagogues across the United States – already concerned with security – are on even higher alert.

For the past week, the American Jewish community – and in many ways, the global Jewish community – mourned and grieved this terrible loss. But it also steeled itself and prepared for this weekend, refusing to back down in the face of violent hate. Thousands of synagogues, Jewish centers and schools alerted their members throughout the week about extra security protection and measures being taken. Rabbis of all denominations penned sermons trying to make some sense of such a senseless loss, and offer solace and strength to congregants. Lay leaders volunteered to coordinate with city officials and police departments to offer a sense of security to a rattled community.

It is 2018, and Jews in the United States are praying to God behind locked doors and armed guards. But they will keep praying.


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