Photo above by Jonathan Epstein
Michael Greenberg- JCP Chair
Good evening. I am Michael Greenberg, Chair of Jewish Community Partners.
We are gathered here tonight to face a tragedy that should never have happened— men and women murdered in cold blood in synagogue, during a prayer service and brit milah. This hateful anti-Semitic attack was designed to undermine our core values, to foment divisiveness among us and to foster an atmosphere of fear around our most sacred spaces and traditions.
We can respond by withdrawing from the community, by letting that fear define our choices and shunning activities that define us as Jews. Or we can respond by coming together to denounce bigotry and antisemitism and to assert ourselves as proud Jews. All of you are here tonight because you’ve chosen the latter, and for that I thank you.
We are grateful for the presence of our neighbors from local Christian communities, as well as elected officials and members of local law enforcement: Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland; Memphis Director of Police Michael Rallings and his command staff; [Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris]; [Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner, Jr.; and his command staff]; and [FBI Special Agent in Charge of the Memphis Division NONAME].
Jewish Community Partners President and CEO, Laura Linder, and Chief Strategy Officer, Bluma Zuckerbrot-Finkelstein, are both in Israel right now, and regret not being here in person among their friends and family in the Memphis Jewish community. They join us in spirit, and Laura sent this message from Israel early this morning:
“As we ended Shabbat yesterday in Jerusalem, we learned of the tragic shooting in Pittsburgh. Needless to say, the beauty of Shabbat quickly transitioned to horror and sadness. 200 women strong (including 22 Memphis women), we gathered together and prayed for the souls of those who were lost and prayed that somehow our collective prayers would bring comfort to the community of Pittsburgh. It is in times like this that our amazing Memphis Jewish community has come together to support each other and pray for peace.”
Tonight’s program is one of mourning and solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh. Community rabbis and cantors will lead us in memorial prayers, songs, psalms, and words of comfort. Unfortunately, in the wake of this tragedy we also need to consider our community’s security protocols. JCP is strongly committed to keeping our community safe and secure. Our Regional Security Director, Stuart Frisch, who joined the JCP team in July, will share a security update.
Rabbi Micah Greenstein- Temple Israel
My dear friends, religion is where Judaism begins but clearly not where it ends. As a religious Jew in the Reform stream, it is the faith of Israel and the loving attributes of God which ground me. However, Judaism is not only about believing; it is also about belonging. We Jews are a faith-family and the entire Jewish body is aching tonight from Pittsburgh to Memphis, from Jerusalem to wherever Jews live.
The Torah says that after Aaron lost not one but two sons, “Kol beit yisrael yivku.” “The entire household of Israel cried.” Perhaps one of Judaism’s most precious gifts which is so obvious this evening is the concept of community. That the mitzvah of comforting mourners, nichum aveilim, that saying the mourner’s kaddish in a minyan takes place in the midst of community, was a brilliant reminder on the part of our Jewish ancestors that we are not alone in our grief. Even and especially when there are no words.
A Jew is never alone within the Jewish community, but so many Jews find themselves alone in countries outside the Land of Israel. Jews are virtually alone in combating antisemitism in France, Hungary and Poland. Jews are even feeling alone right now in the UK, but we are not alone in the United States, and especially in what is arguably the most remarkable interfaith community of all right here in Memphis
Within hours after yesterday’s Shabbat service at my synagogue, I had already received 8 voice mails, 15 texts, and 64 e-mails. There have been nearly 200 more since.
The first three texts and calls were from a Muslim physician, professor, and Imam (one even drove to our synagogue to express his sadness and solidarity). There were private expressions of deep sadness from our Mayors and elected officials, faith leaders from the Christian community, business and civic leaders, none of whom were Jewish. These friends from other faiths reminded me of the Protestant Pastor who when asked why he saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust and fought the Nazis said, “I do not know what a Jew is, we only know what human beings are.”
Dozens of churches throughout the Mid-South included the Jewish community in its Sunday prayers this morning, and so many have written me like Methodist Minister Rev. Gordon, “We have been praying for you all, our sisters and brothers at Temple Israel & our sisters & brothers at the Or L’Simcha congregation in Pittsburgh during our worship services today. Know that you are not alone. Hate will not win. God’s love will prevail.”
Antisemitism will only lessen when those who are not Jewish end it. So if there are any Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu friends in attendance this evening, or other faith traditions which command you to care about “the other,” please rise so we may acknowledge you. It is your voice and presence that brings comfort and is an important reminder that Jews are not alone in fighting hate.
No matter what our path to the One God Who Loves us all, whenever tragedy strikes, religious leaders sometimes try to explain why bad things happen to good people. Beware of that. An even better question than where is God? at times like this is “Where is Humanity?” As for God, please remember two recurring phrases in our Sacred Scripture, “Ehyeh Imach,” “I am with you through it all.” I learn from my study of Judaism that God weeps with us not against us.
The second repetitive phrase in Jewish Scripture is “Al Tirah,” “Do not be afraid!” “Do not live in fear,” meaning, do not ever turn your synagogue into a bunker, turn it into a sanctuary like the Tree of Life and Or L’Chayim congregations created, a sanctuary which drew these 11 to their building from ages 54 to 97.
What characterized these Jewish men and women we mourn as one community was their deep and abiding faith in Judaism well into their later years. We can honor them by modeling them. Branches of the Tree of Life may have been gunned down, but their Jewish roots are as strong as ever. These Jewish roots are intertwined with every Jew worldwide. A fitting tribute to these 11 would be to emulate their fidelity to Judaism, whether we are in our 20s, 50s, or 90s. You can kill the Jewish dreamer, or in this case 11 Jewish dreamers, but you cannot, and you will not kill the Jewish dream of the world we pray for – one of wholeness and shalom, a world filled only with tears of joy instead of the tears we are shedding tonight.
It was somewhere between the prayer for peace and the Torah service when I was pulled off the bimah and told that at least 8 worshipers had been killed at the sister Conservative congregation to Rabbi Sarit Horwitz’s Beth Sholom synagogue. I wasn’t sure how to continue leading a service for the hundreds in attendance who were unaware, including the magnificent bat-mitzvah girl Sadie Sims. Then it dawned on me just before Sadie received the Torah from her parents and grandparents – and chanted the Torah with such devotion and love – that it was Sadie who was the comfort. Ditto for today’s religious school students and every Jewish child. As Elie Wiesel of blessed memory put it, “Every death and tragedy leave scars, and every time a child’s voice is heard, the scars begin to heal.”
Everyone keeps referring to the congregation that was attacked as Tree of Life Congregation, but it’s actually a merger of two progressive Conservative synagogues, named Tree of Life Congregation and Or L’Simcha, a light for joy and happiness. They even housed a third congregation reminiscent of Sadie and our children. That community in the same building is named “Dor Chadash,” “A New Generation.” There are so many lessons learned and ways to strengthen our resolve from this warm, inviting, and family friendly congregation whose members joined a synagogue with light, life, joy, and a new generation in its very name. For instance, the shooter specifically chose to attack a synagogue working with an organization which ought to make every Jew proud, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, whose mission fulfills the Jewish command to welcome the stranger, especially refugees. As the Director of HIAS said in one sentence, “We were founded in 1881 to assist Jewish refugees, now we assist all refugees because we are Jewish.”
I mentioned that the roots of the Tree of Life congregation can and will somehow weather this storm, and so I close with the other name on that Pittsburgh synagogue building, “Or L’Simcha,” “A Light for Joy and Happiness.” Israel’s most famous poet, Rachel, was among the pre-1948 Pioneers in the Northern part of the Galilee. Rachel and those who survived the malaria-infested marshes and awful conditions are always hailed as heroes, but interestingly, before her young death at age 40, Rachel said something different about herself and the other chalutzim (pioneers).
“We were not heroes. We were not martyrs. We dared to be happy. We dared to live.”
After we take the time we need to mourn both the lives lost and the loss of our own communal innocence, may each of us follow Rachel’s example and the 11 members of the Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha congregation– 11 Jewish souls who were filled with love and light and life…who dared to live and be happy no matter what.
Keyn yehi ratson. May this be God’s will, and may it also be our will. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Cantor David Julian- Or Chadash Conservative Synagogue
Like all of you I have been fixated on every source of news and opinion regarding the tragedy that shattered Shabbat in Pittsburgh yesterday. Among the writings was one by Gabe Groisman, the Mayor of Bal Harbour, Florida. Learning that the murderer shouted, “All Jews must die”, this, in part, was his response:
The murderer did not target Jews because they are white. He did not target Jews because they are conservative or because they are liberal. He targeted them because they are Jews. That’s exactly what he said himself during the act of his despicable massacre. He said, “All Jews must die.” That is exactly how our haters think. That is the basis of antisemitism. It is not rational and has nothing to do with our color, our values or our beliefs. Antisemitism is simple – “All Jews must die.” The question is, will Jews wake up and realize that we should stop disengaging from one another and instead unify based on our one true identity – that we are Jews. We should own our Jewish identity.
But our eyes and minds must be open; we live among peoples of the world.
When the Danish king and his subjects put on yellow stars to protect their Jewish population from would-be murderers during the Shoah;
When John Kennedy identified with subjugated Berliners at the peak of the cold war;
Like the people of Billings Montana: when a brick was thrown through a window displaying a Chanukiah in 1993, over 10,000 window displays of Chanukiot spontaneously went up in homes all over town:
These people were demonstrating the highest ideals of humanity; understanding that when one person suffers, so do we all. I’m sure that you will all agree that it has been gratifying to read and hear the wide, sympathetic coverage of our grief and to welcome into our midst here, this evening, representatives of other faiths.
I’ll close with this message of solidarity from Torah, a text you all know; please join:
Shma .… / Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.
The word “Shma” – listen, pay attention – is imperative singular; as is, technically, the word “Yisrael”. But the word “Eloheinu” – our God – refers to us collectively. What is the chidush [new insight] here? Very simple: while we may often view our Jewish community as fragmented among the various movements – including the movement of ‘no movement at all’ – we are viewed by others as one, as a monolith. When Jews are targeted it is not because we are Democrats or Republicans, of different races; observant or scoffers; in charge of the press and banks and Hollywood; funding the left or financing the right; being stand-offish or too involved, too smart or average. It is because we’re Jews. The blight of anti-Semitism may never be totally eradicated, but we prepare ourselves best when we enhance our pride with knowledge and joining any of the Jewish establishments right here in town. So heed the words of Torah: become even more involved and knowledgeable than you already are; take and own your share in the light that we have been mandated to provide to the nations.
We hope and pray that the hideous obscenity, the venomous assault that struck us in Pittsburgh, will serve as the shock therapy that people everywhere need to heal the rifts that have been so divisive.
May their souls be bound up in the Bonds of Eternal Life.
We will update this article as we get transcriptions of remarks from Regional Security Director Stuart Frisch.
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