Pulling into Bolton Street Synagogue’s parking lot for Shabbat services on Friday, Nov. 2, eager synagogue-goers were directed to an overflow parking lot, which also filled up along with nearby street parking, as hundreds packed the Reform shul in Baltimore for Solidarity Shabbat.
The occasion, observed in synagogues nationwide, allowed the Jewish community to gather and pray, mourn and remember the 11 victims killed in Pittsburgh in the deadliest attack against Jews in the U.S. the previous weekend.
Bolton Street’s movable wall into its social hall was opened, and dozens of rows of seats were set up for the service led by Rabbi Andy Gordon and Cantor Karen Webber.
The evening included the lighting of 11 yahrzeit candles for the Pittsburgh victims, a sing-along of “We Shall Overcome,” during which Webber and Gordon were joined by an interfaith group of clergy on the bimah, and the rabbi’s emotional sermon in which he spoke about each person killed in Pittsburgh.
“These 11 precious souls are us. They are young and old. They are singles, couples, siblings and friends,” Gordon said in his sermon. “They are Jews, interfaith couples, Jews by choice, those with disabilities; the rainbow of our Jewish community. They are the greeters, the Torah readers, the prayer leaders and the board members. They are the regulars and those who come every once in a while. They are us.”
The rabbi invited the group to stay after the service, get to know each other and break bread, which they did over a well-supplied potluck.
In Owings Mills, Saturday morning attendance was four or five times its typical size at Beth Israel Congregation, according to Rabbi Jay Goldstein.
“People felt the need to be together as a community, as a congregation,” Goldstein said. The number would’ve been even higher, he said, if not for those who reached out to him to let him know that while they wished they could attend, the heaviness of the events was simply too much.
Friday night, Goldstein said, went light on the liturgy, focusing more on niggunim, wordless melodies that encouraged the congregants to unite “in voice and in body.”
“A niggun is in some way identified as a melody in search of words,” he said. “And to some extent, we acknowledged on Friday night that words fail us and that the melodies help us to get in touch with ourselves.” When it came time for the Shema, the congregants stood shoulder to shoulder with one another.
Down Park Heights Avenue at Temple Oheb Shalom, the previously scheduled consecration for the religious school went ahead as planned on Friday night in a standing room-only chapel. It was “joyful and somber,” Rabbi Sarah Marion said.
“It was really wonderful to showcase our students and learning and hope and the light shining forward from their beautiful faces, and to send a message that in the wake of tragedy, we gain hope and strength by looking to our children and hope that we’re providing them with the tools to fix what’s broken in our world,” she said.
Dori Chait was also there Friday night. “I felt a very different kind of hope while in that service,” she said. “I watched families with young children being welcomed into the religious school and felt the commitment and hope of the next generation.”
In addition to the consecration, the names of the 11 who were murdered in Pittsburgh were read aloud.
The following morning brought a bar mitzvah. For Nancy Solomon, whose son Josh was celebrating the milestone, it was a confusing mix of emotions.
“It was extremely difficult for me to balance my profound sadness and soaring joy. I tried to block some of my heartache as well as anxiety, but it was impossible,” she said. “I was worried about breaking down at our Shabbat service, but our Shabbat service was so well done at Oheb and it felt like such a supportive community that I believe those attending felt this rather than just grief.”
Her husband, Barry, spoke to the congregation about the urgent necessity of tikkun olam, a theme echoed by Josh in his d’var Torah.
“It felt safe. It felt supportive. It felt like a community that was stronger than hate and committed to helping and healing,” Nancy said.
At Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, the mood was similar. “It was meaningful to see hundreds of members of our congregation and so many non-Jews from the community in attendance,” said Jonathan Schwartz, who was there Saturday morning with his wife and parents. “The words of Rabbi Sachs-Kohen and Rabbi Busch were powerful and thoughtful. They were joined on the bimah by clergy of other denominations showing their support for the Jewish community at this time of unspeakable tragedy.”
At Temple Isaiah in Howard County, Rabbi Craig Axler said the usual Friday evening crowd of about 50 grew to more than 200. A particularly poignant moment came after the rabbi’s sermon, when he showed a video from a local church. The Oaklands Presbyterian Church in Laurel sent the synagogue a video of their choir singing Shema.
After the song, the video screen showed the words “Sung by a choir made up of community members who wanted to do something to show that we will stand with and for you. We will sing in solidarity!”
Rabbi Gila Ruskin of Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace had a similarly moving experience Saturday morning. Joined by congregants from the nearby Harford County Education Society’s Masjid Al Falaah and St. James AME Church along with local officials, the service was conducted as usual, with breaks built in intended to foster conversation between the attendees that morning. Ruskin wrote special call and response prayers, which were received enthusiastically, she said.
“Reach out,” Ruskin would read. “And I’ll be there,” the congregation would respond. For Ruskin, it was a way to highlight the defining quality of the day, and in the spirit of lightheartedness, Ruskin, a Detroit native, said it was also a chance to reference Motown stalwarts The Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There).”
That wasn’t the only music of the morning. A keyboard player from St. James AME played a medley of “If I Had A Hammer” and “We Shall Overcome,” and longtime Adas Shalom congregant Sig Gast sang “El Maale Rachamim.”
“It was beautiful to look out there and see the sea of faces,” Ruskin said.
Adas Shalom has paired up with Masjid Al Falaah and St. James AME in the past for Martin Luther King Jr. Day events, but Ruskin said there is renewed enthusiasm among her congregants for the partnership. “Quite a few people did say, ‘when can we get together again?’”