More than 600 people filled the pews and overflowed into a basement meeting room for an interfaith vigil hosted by the Jewish Center of the Hamptons Thursday evening, honoring the 11 people murdered and the six police officers injured last weekend in the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history.
Attendees were led in song by JCOH Cantor Debra Stein, as leaders from many faiths lit candles for the 11 worshippers killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh during shabbat services last Saturday morning.
Rabbis from many local congregations shared their thoughts on the killings.
“It’s easy to be afraid and many of us are…. Jews have a long history of watching our synagogues burn and watching our friends and family be murdered,” said JCOH Rabbi Joshua Friedman. “Many people are reminded of this past, and they ask, ‘is this the new normal, once again?’ NO. Pittsburgh is not the new normal. Look at the many of us gathered here. This is the new normal, right here in this room.”
“A lone gunman, a lone wolf, is just that. One individual. Look around and see the many voices coming together as one,” he added. “Turn on the television and look at the hundreds of vigils and thousands of people throughout the country tonight, in packed synagogues, in packed rooms. Millions of people from all faiths have been supporting the Jewish community and supporting one another. This is the new normal.”
Rabbi Franklin said a movement is afoot throughout the country, shared through the hashtag #showupforshabbat, for people to come together at their synagogues, churches, mosques and other houses of worship this coming weekend to show that they are not afraid to exercise their freedom of religion.
“Fear is a choice and we shouldn’t be paralyzed by the precariousness of the world around us,” he said. “The best way for any of us to cross this scary path is together.”
“Antisemitism is nothing to scoff at. In 2017, antisemitic incidents were up 57 percent,” he added. “While they are marginal now, there’s a very real possibility that they could become normal.”
He reminded the crowd of the chants at the Unite the Right rally last summer in Charlottesville, Va. of “Jews will not replace us. Jews will not replace us. Blood and soil.”
“Their message crushed our soul,” he said. “But they are not the new normal. We are…. We are the masses here tonight. It is our responsibility to make sure hatred, bigotry and racism are the marginal shadows within our country.”
Rabbi Franklin said many people in the room that he knew of, and perhaps many he didn’t, had close ties to the Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Squirrel Hill, where the murders took place.
He said Rabbi Jan Uhrbach of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons in Bridgehampton is in Pittsburgh this week, doing pastoral care for many of the wounded and shocked members of the Tree of Life community.
Rabbi Daniel Geffen of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor said that Pittsburgh, 500 miles away, can seem distant, but to many people here who have friends and family there, it feels like it’s right down the road, especially now.
“There’s the thought of our own family and community in the crosshairs,” he said. “Fear is a natural response, but it’s not what we need right now.”
Rabbi Geffen said he looks to the text of Kol Dodi Dofek, a 1956 address by Joseph Soloveitchik on the necessity of the state of Israel in the wake of the Holocaust.
“Humanity’s mission in this world is to turn fate into destiny,” he said. ” Yes, we must first grieve and we must first heal…But our tradition does not allow us to grieve forever.”
“The question is not if but when there will be another attack,” he said, then discussed the Hebrew camp lesson of “seem-u lev,” which is translated in modern times to “Pay Attention.”
“It means to place one’s heart on something or in something,” he said. “In other words, to dedicate one’s whole self to that which is most important. Sadly for many of us, it took this heinous act to force us to pay attention to what is happening in our world. It is essential
that we not just pay attention to the threats around us, but also to the opportunities for healing and bridge-building. Not just to the dangers and the hatred and the evil, but also to pay attention to the outpouring of love and support in the wake of this tragedy. May the memories of the righteous be a blessing to us.”
Rabbi Michael Rascoe of Temple Israel in Riverhead grew up in Pittsburgh, and he knows many people in the Tree of Life congregation.
“This is very personal,” he said, before reciting a prayer by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat:
“I’m hollow, stricken like a bell. Make of my emptiness a channel for Your boundless compassion. Soothe those who witnessed things no one should see, those who tried to protect them but couldn’t, those who are torn apart with grief, who will never kiss their beloveds again.”
“Our community will not tolerate such deplorable acts. We stand together to support acceptance of freedom of religion,” said East Hampton Village Mayor Paul Rickenbach, Jr. “What is it going to take for us to come together with a common thread of humanity for all god’s children? Let’s work together to make it better.”
East Hampton Village Police Chief Mike Tracey read a prayer for the six police officers wounded in the shooting.
“We commend them to your loving care, because their duty is dangerous,” he said.
The community joined together in a new song, called “Tree of Life,” composed by the bluegrass band Nefesh Mountain in the wake of the attack.
“Sweet friends come dry your eyes/And hold each other by this tree of life/I’m angry and tired of this great divide/but I sing nonetheless with love on our side.”
Eleven leaders from churches throughout the South Fork then lit candles for each of the eleven people killed on Saturday, followed by the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer for the dead.
“May the One who makes peace on high, bring peace down to us all.”
It took about half an hour for people to exit the synagogue, and near the tail end of the stragglers was Perry Gershon, an East Hampton resident who is running as a Democrat for Congress this fall.
Mr. Gershon, who is Jewish, reluctantly shared his thoughts on being there when asked by a reporter.
“I don’t want to be political,” he said. “I thought this was a heartfelt way to be there with the community. We need to get better, as a country. I hope that’s what comes out of this.”