WOODBRIDGE, CT — In the face of terror, New Haven stands together.
That message resounded at a local standing-and-sitting—room-only communal vigil held Sunday evening for the 11 Jews massacred by an anti-Semitic gunman during Shabbat services this weekend at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
The massacre sent horror through Jews throughout the world, especially those of us who happened to have been sitting in our own synagogues that same morning, singing “etz chayyim hi” — “it is a tree of life” — as the Torah was returned to its ark after the weekly reading. By a stroke of fortune, the massacre didn’t happen in one of our New Haven shuls. This time.
By filling the Jewish Community Center’s Vine Auditorium on Amity Road Sunday night, Jews from all local congregations came together to remember the 11 people killed in Pittsburgh and to join hands in determination not to let terror and hate defeat us.
And New Haveners of all different faiths joined hands with us to declare that we all stand together in that quest.
Five hundred people filled the auditorium, with another 300 spilling out into the hallway, according to Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven CEO Judy Alperin, who emceed and organized the event.
In between some Debbie Friedman-scored Hebrew singing — hinei mah tov uma nayim/ shevet achim gam yachad (how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity) — Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbis took turns in most cases calling on the crowd to unify as both Jews and as members of a broader New Haven community. Local Unitarian, Episcopal and Methodist ministers spoke as well, as did a representative from the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut.
The names of the 11 Jews gunned down in Pittsburgh flashed on a screen behind them as they spoke.
Congregation Beth Shalom Rabbi Benjamin Scolnic set the universalist tone for the evening.
“When a gunman shoots children in a school in Connecticut, or churchgoers in South Carolina, or a concert in Las Vegas; when bombs are sent to many of our finest leaders, there is no distance” between us and tragedy, Scolnic said.
“And when you’re shut in on Shabbos morning, and you hear that people in another soul were just killed, on that morning, on that Shabbos, there is no distance. …
“Distance was a lullaby that helped us to fall asleep.
“There is not distance anymore,. We have to understand that if someone is a hater, it doesn’t make any difference if they happen to hate this ethic group or that nationality, or this skin color, or that sexual identity.
“If anyone hates any group, they hate us.
“Because we are part of the human ‘us.’
“If you hate any group, you hate me. Hatred of anyone is hatred of everyone. … We are united in our grief. But we are also united in our hope.”
The Rev. Steven Cousin recalled how New Haven Jews joined other New Haveners in a similar coming-together in his church, Bethel AME Zion on Goffe Street, in 2015 after a racist gunman shot dead nine African-American members of an AME congregation in Charleston, South Carolina.
“You stood with us on that night to say that you were here for us and ‘we are grieving with you. We are mourning with you. And we love you.’
“And so on this night I would like to tell those of the Jewish community that we are standing with you. We love you. We are mourning with you. And we are grieving with you.
“For those in the African-American community, we know all too well what it’s like to lose lives, especially in a house of worship. Our churches have been burned down. Four little girls lost their lives to a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. And then what happened in the church in Charleston S.C. in 2015.
“We have much more in common than we do have that divides us. It is through our grief and through our mourning that we can form a bond so strong and so potent that on a night like tonight we can send one clear message: Love will always outweigh hate.”
That was one of the tough applause lines of the evening.
The other applause line came from Rona Shapiro, rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jacob, when she issued a call to action.
“Things like this will happen when anti-Semitism proliferates and goes unchecked in our country, when leaders and candidates for public office give voice to anti-Semitic statements,” Shapiro said. “It is a straight line from Charlottesville to the demonization of George Soros to Pittsburgh. Things like this will happen when we allow hatred to be part of our discourse, when it becomes OK to hate people with whom you disagree or who look different than us. Things like this will happen when guns proliferate and madmen can purchase a full arsenal sufficient for a small army.”
She reminded the crowd that “this murderer’s proximate motive” was a recent statement by the Jewish nonprofit group HIAS supporting the immigrant caravan in Central America. She spoke of how local synagogues celebrated an HIAS-sponsored “National Refugee Shabbat” a week ago, in cooperation with Syrian refugees.
And she called on the crowd to stand fast in support of refugees. To “speak out against anti-Semitism.” To “speak up for gun control.” To weigh our language when we speak. And to “get out and vote and get others to vote for what you believe America is and was meant to be.”
That was the second applause line.
In the wake of one of the worst attacks, if the not the worst attack, on Jews in U.S. history, New Haven congregations have begun reviewing our security protocols. Some of us made sure to start Sunday morning at shacharit prayer services to be around fellow Jews in sacred spaces that we cherish and that suddenly seem vulnerable to attack.
And on Sunday night we felt the love and strength of community. We were reminded that while a vile wave of hate gains strength through our nation, in New Haven we are not alone.
Click here to view Paul’s live video of the event.