2018-11-07 / Home

In response to Pittsburgh, public gatherings offer strong support for Jewish community

At the shore:
By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER Voice Shore Editor


Jewish leaders, elected officials, and local clergy came together at the Community Gathering of Solidarity at Shirat Hayam Oct. 28. Jewish leaders, elected officials, and local clergy came together at the Community Gathering of Solidarity at Shirat Hayam Oct. 28. Just over a year ago, Jeffrey Myers became a rabbi at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, after seven years as Hazzan at Shirat Hayam/Cong. Beth Judah in Ventnor. Just over a week ago, he found himself doing the unimaginable: Urging congregants to safety and calling 911 after a gunman yelling anti- Semitic slurs entered his synagogue on a murderous rampage that left 11 worshippers dead and many more wounded.

Since that horrific shooting, the hearts and prayers of the local Jewish community have been with Myers and the congregants and clergy that share Tree of Life Synagogue, as well as the entire Pittsburgh Jewish community.

At the same time, elected officials, students, and others from the broader local community have swiftly rallied in support of the Jewish community. Since the Sunday following the deadly shooting, public gatherings have been held at Shirat Hayam, Atlantic City Hall, and Stockton University to show support for Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and express collective grief and outrage over yet another slaughter of innocent worshippers. Local Jewish organizations and synagogues have also begun planning for enhanced security in the wake of the deadly attack.


Elected officials and local clergy gathered at Atlantic City Hall on Oct. 30, to speak out against hate in response to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Among those at the event were (from left), Atlantic County Sheriff Eric Scheffler, NJ State Representative Chris Brown, Atlantic City Councilman and NAACP President Kaleem Shabazz, Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam (at podium), NJ State Senator Jeff Van Drew, and Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson. Elected officials and local clergy gathered at Atlantic City Hall on Oct. 30, to speak out against hate in response to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Among those at the event were (from left), Atlantic County Sheriff Eric Scheffler, NJ State Representative Chris Brown, Atlantic City Councilman and NAACP President Kaleem Shabazz, Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam (at podium), NJ State Senator Jeff Van Drew, and Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson. “When a hate-filled gunman burst into Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Or L’simcha Congregation on Shabbat morning…he probably did not think his vile actions would lead to an outpouring of love and unity.” Yet, “that is exactly what is happening,” stressed a Jewish Federation of Atlantic & Cape May Counties communiqué urging people to attend Shabbat services in the wake of the attack, as part of a national Jewish Federation initiative called #ShowUpForShabbat.

Indeed, just a day after the heinous shooting in Pittsburgh, 500 people came together for a Community Gathering of Solidarity at Shirat Hayam in Ventnor. There, local rabbis and cantors were joined by clergy members of other faiths and elected officials in mourning the victims, expressing anger over the attack, and providing comfort to distraught community members.

The gathering was planned at lightning speed. Upon hearing of the attack, Rabbi Jonathan Kremer immediately began planning a community gathering at his synagogue. Doing something at Shirat Hayam was important to Kremer, given the special connection he and his congregants felt for Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, their former Hazzan. Kremer quickly connected with Jewish Federation leaders, who were also planning a community gathering.

As Shabbat ended on the evening of the shooting, phone calls flew between Federation President David Lieberman, Jewish Community Relations Council Chair Cantor Harvey Wolbransky, Jewish Federation staff, and Rabbi Kremer, as all scrambled to coordinate the event. The South Jersey Board of Rabbis and Cantors also played a major role in bringing people together for the gathering, with many rabbis or cantors sending out emails urging their congregants to attend and posting the event on their congregation’s Facebook page. Other local Jewish organizations did the same. The press was also invited.

“We wanted to have the community gather as one, to show that we are united by our love of God, our love of community, our love of Israel, and our love of country. The community gathering that took place did just that. We gathered together, showed that we are strong,” said Wolbransky. The gathering brought people “a better sense of peace,” he added. “People were comforted by gathering together as a community. Did it heal wounds? No. But it started the healing process.”

The Shore gathering at 5 p.m. Sunday was intentionally set for the same time as the Pittsburgh vigil, as were many others across the United States. Two Ventnor Police cars sat prominently in front of the synagogue’s main entrance as people streamed into Shirat Hayam. The unexpectedly high turnout sent Shirat Hayam members scurrying to set up extra chairs once seating in the sanctuary maxed out.

After leading the room in a dirge-like singing of Hinei Ma Tov, Kremer welcomed congregants. “How good we’re all together here,” he said, while also acknowledging the unfortunate circumstances creating this unity. “We are here to support each other,” he explained.

Jewish Federation president David Lieberman stressed that the shooting would not stop Jews from expressing their identity. “I’m here to say no one will stop us from being proud Jews and continuing to practice our religion,” he said. Commenting on the large turnout, Lieberman expressed pride in “how quickly we can come together” in times of need.

He then read a statement from the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, which said: “Our hearts are broken….We are all truly family in the Pittsburgh Jewish community, so these deaths have affected all of us as would a death in one’s nuclear family.” In spite of this, the statement concluded: “We are stronger than the tragedies that befall us because we are stronger together.”

“Stronger together” was an important theme of the evening. Speaking on behalf of the South Jersey Board of Rabbis and Cantors, Rabbi Gerald Fox of Temple Beth Shalom, the board president, said: “I am here to remind you that—look around…look around—you are not alone.”

“There is comfort in seeing the beautiful turnout of our community,” agreed Doug Stanger, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) vice chair for the Philly region. He noted that ADL had reported a 57 percent increase in “incidents of empowerment of hate mongers” on the Internet. “But we can and are making a difference,” he stressed, adding that ADL had opened an office in Silicon Valley to better address the spread of hatred through the internet, which he said was a large contributor to the uptick in hate.

Strong words of support from several members of the greater community elicited a standing ovation from the crowd. Rev. James Barclay, representing the Atlantic City vicinity Fellowship of Churches, proclaimed: “I’m here to offer our condolences and offer our support to the Jewish Community. You are not here alone. We stand with you.”

This sentiment was echoed by Atlantic City Councilman and community activist Kaleem Shabazz. “As president of the NAACP, we stand in solidarity with the Jewish community. We are with you, we love you, we support you, we will defend your rights to worship and survive,” he said.

Shabazz and State Senator Jeff Van Drew both stressed the need for elected officials to set the example for others in their speech and action. “This has to do with leadership, it’s not party-related,” stressed Van Drew. “Leadership must make it clear: We will not tolerate anti- Semitism; we will not tolerate anti-anything,” he declared. “Leadership has to set the tone, to let people know this will not be tolerated.”

“My heart bleeds for all of you of the [Jewish] faith,” Van Drew added.

Rabbi Yaacov Orimland of Young Israel also spoke. “I have the great honor to read the names of the victims” of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack. They are: Joyce Fienberg, age 75; Richard Gottfried, age 65; Rose Mallinger, age 97; Jerry Rabinowitz, age 66; Cecil Rosenthal, age 59, and his brother David Rosenthal, age 54; Bernice and Sylvan Simon, a married couple, ages 84 and 86; Daniel Stein, age 71; Melvin Wax, age 88. And Irving Younger, age 69. May their memories always be a blessing,” prayed Orimland.

The names of those murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting were also solemnly read at the outset of a City Hall gathering of a large cross-section of clergy and elected officials. The midday event on Tuesday, Oct. 30, arranged by Kaleem Shabazz, was largely a press conference to convey local leaders’ solidarity with the Jewish community, opposition to anti-Semitism, and outrage over yet another incident in which people were slain in houses of worship.

A candlelight vigil to mourn the victims was also held at Stockton University on Oct. 30. More than 200 people attended, including students, faculty, and a smattering of community members.

The vigil was planned by campus Jewish organizations, including Hillel, Chabad and the Jewish fraternity and sorority, as well as the Campus Religious Council, the university’s governing organization for all religious groups on campus.

“As the sun went down, each person got a candle,” said Hillel director Rachel Waldman. One candle was lit and everyone shared the light with friends and strangers until more than 200 candles were blazing. “It was a very powerful image to witness, very special and comforting,” said Waldman.

Many distraught students seemed eager for the comfort that this show of unity provided, she added. Among students, there was “a lot of shock, definitely a feeling of surprise that it happened because America has been a safe space for Jewish people. It’s definitely scary.”

To make a donation for the Pittsburgh Jewish community, call the Jewish Federation of Atlantic & Cape May Counties at (609) 822-4404 or visit https://jewishpgh.org/our-victims. 

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