Inside the packed sanctuary of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Sunday morning, Rabbi Andrew Busch and Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen addressed the raw hatred that had sparked the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings just 24 hours before. The rabbis implored attendees, even in the face of such horror, to summon the strength and courage to keep seeking the light “that will dispel the darkness.”
Busch, who is a former associate rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh, offered heartfelt concern for the dead and wounded, the congregations and the communities, and admitted anger “in the face of violence and those who create a time that encourages such violence.” Cantor Ben Ellerin sang of “building this world from love” as attendees stood and held hands, swayed and sang along, hugging and holding loved ones close as one small Israeli flag was waved amid the crowd.
“My heart is so heavy with the knowledge that this is not the first time and we are not the only ones whose lives are worth nothing to those who are emboldened and even encouraged to hate,” Sachs- Kohen said. “Today we mourn. Tomorrow, let us stand up strong together.”
Also inside the building, near the front door and along inner halls, were black-clad security guards, while outside Baltimore County police and Shomrim of Baltimore made their presence known, a response to the shooting at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue, where 11 people were killed and six injured in what is now believed to be the deadliest attack against the Jewish community in U.S. history.
Before the service began, Baltimore Jewish Council Executive Director Howard Libit called Saturday’s massacre “horrifying,” and saw the need for the community to come together and stand up against anti-Semitism.
“We will not change our ways. We will still gather as a Jewish community and also stand in solidarity and sympathy with the victims and their families,” he said.
Like the Pittsburgh community of Squirrel Hill, where Saturday’s shooting took place, Baltimore’s Jewish community is large and diverse, yet fairly tight-knit. That togetherness could be seen Sunday as Jews of many branches of the faith and non-Jews filled BHC’s large sanctuary.
Jeanette Parmigiani, director of Holocaust programs for the BJC and a Catholic, said she skipped Mass Sunday morning to be with the community she has grown so close to over her decades working with Holocaust survivors.
“I have a real connection, a heartfelt connection, with the Jewish community,” Parmigiani said, with tears in her eyes. “I work in it and I love everybody in it. I thought it was important to show solidarity with the people I work with and love so much.”
Busch said that the upcoming Shabbat on Nov. 2 and 3 would be a call for unity and solidarity at synagogues and shuls. When he asked anyone in attendance with a connection to Pittsburgh to stand, dozens of men and women across the sanctuary rose, including U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, who earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh in 1964; his wife’s roots are in Western Pennsylvania.
“Squirrel Hill was my Jewish support during my years in undergraduate school. This hits particularly hard,” he said. “A house of prayer, a sanctuary, invaded. People killed solely because of their religious beliefs brings out the worst memories in the history of mankind. We need to be together. We need to stand in unity. Whether you are an elected official, a rabbi, student or journalist, you need to speak out.
“Hate can have no place in our country. No place whatsoever. We need to make that clear. Not just by our deeds, but by the words we use. There can be no space for hate in America.”
Pikesville resident Marcia Leber said she is concerned about the divisive atmosphere in the United States.
“It saddens me to the deepest core,” she said. “There is so much hate that’s being brought out right now, this week with the [mail bombs] and the shootings, we need to unite. And for our community, the Jewish community, and for all communities, we need to come together. And everybody needs to vote.”
Many are calling for the upcoming midterm elections to be a referendum against the negativity, nationalism, bombast and vitriolic rhetoric that characterizes today’s political climate.
While Cardin denied a definite cause and effect between President Trump’s rhetoric and Saturday’s shootings, he said, “His comments give space for hate. And that should have no place in this country. So yes, words have consequences. And the president’s words lead to bad things, but I would not draw a direct line.”
Interim Baltimore County Executive Donald L. Mohler III remembered fondly the late County Executive Kevin Kamenetz for his stance against injustice.
“He stood up and spoke out against racism and bigotry and hatred and anti-Semitism of any kind and he did that because he knew that the America, the United States that he loved, that he valued, was not the America that rears its ugly head in horrific events like the one we saw yesterday,” Mohler said. “I believe that when we come together, that when we grieve, that when we mourn and when we hug, we also must hope.”
After the service, Democratic Baltimore County Executive candidate Johnny Olszewski Jr. said he agreed with Busch and Sachs-Kohen that after mourning, it’s time for action, including advocating for more responsible gun laws and partnering with public safety agencies, to providing appropriate mental health needs.
“To also being someone who is willing to stand and speak out against these kinds of senseless acts and the kinds of divisive rhetoric we see,” Olszewski said. “I think that’s been the most disappointing thing in all this, to see some of our leaders not actually leading, in fact, either inflaming or making matters worse.”
Republican Baltimore County executive candidate Al Redmer Jr., who also attended BHC’s event, called the shootings “horrific” in a Saturday morning Facebook post and said he was praying for the Pittsburgh community.
“Hate like this has absolutely no place in our society,” he wrote. “Now more than ever our country must come together, put aside our differences and work together to make our communities safe and welcoming to all.”
Programs and initiatives that bring people together are more important than ever, said Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11), especially those that promote tolerance. “And also that encourage law enforcement to flag individuals who seem to cross the line in social media between hateful rhetoric and action,” he added.
Earlier this year, the Anti-Defamation League released a report that found “the number of anti-Semitic incidents was nearly 60 percent higher in 2017 than 2016, the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since ADL started tracking incident data in the 1970s.”
Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) said that study is prompting him to investigate how Maryland’s hate crimes law intersects with online hate speech and speech spread by automated bots.
Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D-District 5), whose district includes Baltimore’s large Orthodox population, said at a Saturday evening event in Baltimore that the community needs to unite and declare “enough is enough” while remaining vigilant and taking security “very seriously.”
Baltimore Jewish organizations also responded to the Pittsburgh killings by calling for unity and improving security to keep the community safe.
“We are in constant contact with our partners at Secure Community Network, the Jewish Federations of North America- funded organization that addresses safety, in conjunction with Homeland Security and other national entities,” said The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore in a statement. “Information is being communicated to our local organizations and law enforcement agencies to ensure that our institutions have the resources and attention to help prevent such tragedies.”
The JCC of Greater Baltimore announced that in partnership with Jewish Community Services, it will be offering one-hour group sessions “for adults who would like to process [the shooting’s] impact on their sense of well-being” and to provide parents guidance on talking with their children about the event, hate and anti-Semitism. In addition, the JCC said it is constantly evaluating its security procedures “to create safe and secure facilities,” calling on members to report suspicious activity to security guards.
Area organizations and synagogues held Monday-evening vigils, including Kol HaLev synagogue in Towson, Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia in conjunction with the Jewish Federation of Howard County, and Towson University.
Following the BHC service, Catonsville resident and synagogue member Janice Williams called Sunday a day of “mourning and solidarity.”
“I am deeply hurt by what happened out in Pittsburgh. My husband was born in Pittsburgh and we are deeply saddened,” she said. “When we came home from Shabbat services yesterday we found out and we were in total disbelief all night. We stand with the Jewish people and we stand with all people together. Judaism is a way of life and we all must stand up for justice.”
History shows Jews have “constantly been a target,” said Zahava Klein, director of Israel and Jewish advocacy for the Baltimore Jewish Council. “And I think the message is that we just need to continue to reach out to each other and spread a message of love and unity.”
BHC congregant Tracie Guy-Decker, deputy director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland and a member of area social justice groups, said she was glad to see the sanctuary so full, but wished it was even fuller.
“I was really glad to hear my rabbi say we’re not the only ones, because I feel like though this one hurts and it’s closer to my heart, it is no different really than Charleston. It is the same kind of act committed by the same kind of perpetrator,” she said. “And we need to recognize that the through line here is the white nationalism, the through line is the tolerance of hatred, the tolerance of believing that one group is superior to another. That’s the through line.”
‘We Will Outlive Them’
Sunday afternoon, about 100 people gathered at Baltimore’s Holocaust Memorial downtown. In his opening remarks, Jonah ben Avraham, who coordinated the event with a number of local organizations, spoke the Yiddish phrase “mir veln zey iberlebn,” which means “we will outlive them.”
“It dates back to the Shoah, to the Holocaust,” he explained. “When facing one of the darkest periods in Jewish history, there were Jews who had the audacity to rise up and say, ‘we will outlive this fascist threat’ even when that was very far from certain. It’s part of the reason we’re here today and here specifically in this sacred space.”
Ben Avraham, a community organizer with Jews United for Justice, held the gathering with the support of Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebel, Baltimore Jewish Voice for Peace, Baltimore Socialists and the Council on American- Islamic Relations.
Cantor George Henschel of Kol HaLev led the group in singing “Oseh Shalom.”
“In times like this, we do two things,” he told the group. “We vote and we sing.”
Among the clergy in the diverse crowd was Hinenu’s Rabbi Ariana Katz, who spoke about the importance of solidarity and “showing up.”
“We will not show up at these rallies, in these sacred places, in these places of holy memory, only when our own safety is threatened,” she told the crowd. “We will show up in our homes, in our workplaces and in the streets to fight anti-Semitism. We will show up in our homes, in our workplaces and in the streets to fight white supremacy. We will show up in our homes, our workplaces and our streets to welcome the stranger, care for the sick, to comfort the mourner and to give help to those in need.”
She read the names and ages of the 11 victims killed Saturday and of the two African-Americans who were killed in a shooting at a Kroger supermarket in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, on Oct. 24, Vickie Lee Jones and Maurice E. Stallard. The crowd answered each name saying, “may their memory be for a blessing.”
While a solemn day for all, ben Avraham noted the many groups that can partner in solidarity.
“White supremacy is a dangerous system that targets so many people and we cannot allow ourselves to give in to the kinds of racism that divides us from those other people,” he told the crowd. “Muslims, people of color, queers, Jews, people with disabilities, trans folks, immigrants — the list is a really long one and that means that the list of potential allies is also very long.” The crowd burst into applause.
“The only way we get out of this is solidarity. The only way we get out of this is recognizing that our liberation is tied with the liberation of all of those other groups in uniting to fighting back.”
That interfaith and inter-community solidarity was felt Sunday. A number of priests attended, as did Zainab Chaudry, a Muslim community leader holding a sign that said, “Muslims Stand With Jews #PittsburghStrong.”
“To our Jewish friends, you are not alone. We stand with you. We stand with your community,” Chaudry, director of Maryland outreach for CAIR, said. “Hate wants to go mainstream in our country, but we will shut it down. We will work together to make sure that those who try to sow the seeds of division and intolerance are pushed back to the fringes of society where they belong.”
Chaudry also addressed her fellow Muslims. “Be intentional and deliberate in your solidarity. I tell you, we know too well what it’s like to be targeted by hate. This is not a time that we can afford to sit on the sidelines.”
Two attendees, Ilana Unger and Sarah Rovin, both of Baltimore, felt the support of the community. The two friends who both work at the Pearlstone Center read the Mourner’s Kaddish to the crowd.
“Something I love and have always loved about my Jewish identity is community and coming together and feeling everything you feel together so you don’t feel alone,” Unger said. “I just feel like I can pour my emotions out when I’m with other people who are also feeling the same way.”
Rovin felt inspired to act.
“I’ve been feeling activated and it’s giving me lots of motivation for all the work my community can be a part of in building collective power with other communities and fighting anti-Semitism and racism,” she said.
For Pamela Ellis, who lives near Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in the Glen neighborhood, attending Sunday’s service was her way to show solidarity with the Jewish community. But in addition to her deep sadness, she had a sense of “fighting back.”
“I think the solidarity is coming out and showing that this is everybody’s community. When you hurt a part of humanity, particularly because of their faith or because of their color, we as people are going to stick together and overcome this because hate can’t win. That’s the reason I’m out here — to grieve with the other people, because this is a horror. It’s a horror,” she said.
“And as an African-American, we’ve experienced this for years. When people are bombed or killed because of their faith, every time it happens, it brings back those memories and that sadness. As Jewish people and African-Americans, we’re always the recipients of this hate and violence through the millennia. We just have to stick together and fight it. Our children are the future, and we will overcome.”
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