A solemn but hopeful crowd gathered at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC on the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 3, as The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the Baltimore Jewish Council hosted an interfaith Oneg Shabbat to kick off the Solidarity Shabbat weekend. That evening and the following day, congregations across the country saw high turnouts at services from Jews and non-Jews alike to show solidarity after 11 were killed during a shooting at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh the previous Shabbat.
Attendees at the JCC were largely from Baltimore’s Jewish community, but the majority of the speakers were of different faiths. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh spoke, as did Bishop Dwayne Debnam of Morning Star Baptist Church in Baltimore and Bishop Mark Brennan of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Marc B. Terrill, president of The Associated, began by noting that “many dear friends” couldn’t make it, including members of the Muslim community, who sent their regrets and well wishes. Terrill also spoke about his family’s trip to Pittsburgh the previous Tuesday to attend the funeral of brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, two of the shooting victims who happened to be cousins of his wife, Diana.
“As I listened to the eulogies, I was paralyzed by the question of how we got here,” he said. “What possesses another human being to kill another based on generalized hate? There is no acceptable answer.”
After expressing a desire for all to accept and celebrate their differences, Terrill invited Diana to the stage, where they lit candles in honor of her cousins. Following Terrill’s address, nine more speakers shared messages about hope, action and fighting against hate, before similarly lighting a candle for each of the victims.
During his speech, Rabbi Moshe Hauer of Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion considered whether the shooting was a grim sign of history repeating itself, stating that over the past 2,000 years, the Jewish people have not been able to settle in one place for very long.
“We come, we establish ourselves and then are forced to leave. That’s the sad reality of our history. We are the wandering Jews, and we know it,” he said.
Hauer commented that although it is traditional, even routine, for elected officials and leaders of different faith communities to unite after a tragedy, for the Jewish community, this instance feels different.
“Our appreciation today is nothing close to routine,” he said. “Your presence here is not just another function, it means the world to us.”
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Jewish Baltimorean who considered Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh a spiritual home while studying at University of Pittsburgh as an undergrad, used his address as an opportunity to urge fellow elected politicians to stand up against hate.
“Each of us, by our words and our deeds, must be held accountable. This attack underscores that words have consequences,” he said. “Public discourse that only stokes fear is not policy debate. It is hate-mongering, pure and simple. It must be condemned by our leaders.”
Each elected official who spoke — Hogan, Pugh, fellow U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Baltimore County Executive Donald Mohler — echoed the notion that hate cannot be tolerated, even as several speakers acknowledged it is on the rise.
Bishop Brennan questioned whether the simultaneous “upsurge in hate and violence” could possibly be related to a decline in religious practice.
“It should trouble government leaders that the religious foundations of public morality are eroding,” he said. “It should motivate religious leaders to reach out to the unaffiliated and the disaffected. Not only for the good of those persons and those religious congregations, but for the good of us all.”
Other religious leaders spoke more broadly, calling for peace and unity through a social context.
“Character matters, integrity matters, kindness matters, life matters, Jewish lives matter, black lives matter, Asian lives matter, immigrants’ lives matter,” Bishop Debnam said. “We are here today because somebody has empowered racism. What we must do is take away the license of racism. Until we take away its license, the message will be spread until nothing matters but what matters to me, myself and I. Today, please note that if we want to move forward, this license must be revoked.”
After the event, BJC Executive Director Howard Libit noted that elected officials and faith leaders were eager to participate because of shared values.
“We were pleased that so many of them were able to join us and say such powerful words,” he said. “Each leader really articulated their thoughts, their concerns and how we can all stand up together against hate.”
Dori Chait, a member of Temple Oheb Shalom and board member of both The Associated and the Jewish Volunteer Connection, called the event “raw and extremely emotional.” Still, Chait was encouraged.
“I felt deep hope when I heard the words of faith leaders from throughout Baltimore,” she said. “The message I left with was that no matter our religion or race, we stand as one against hate cast upon any group.”