After Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, New York rabbis plan message of healing, resolve

The Central Synagogue in Manhattan and others across the city will participate in the American Jewish Committee's #ShowUpForShabbat campaign this weekend.
The Central Synagogue in Manhattan and others across the city will participate in the American Jewish Committee’s #ShowUpForShabbat campaign this weekend. Photo Credit: Humanoids

Still reeling from a Pittsburgh shooting that left 11 people dead and several more injured, rabbis across New York City are preparing for Shabbat this week, grappling to find ways to help their congregations process their grief and stand strong for the future. 

Several rabbis in New York said they expect more people to turn out for Shabbat on Friday night and Saturday, the first since the shooting inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, as many synagogues plan to participate in the American Jewish Committee’s #ShowUpForShabbat campaign.

"The way Jews process grief is always communally," said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, of the Reform Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side. "I think they will show up more than regular weekly Shabbat because I feel they will feel they need it, that they need some kind of communal spiritual gathering, simply to be with other people." 

Rabbi Steven Exler of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox shul, said the synagogue will host a "processing space" on Saturday as well as services. The synagogue has sent several clergy members to Pittsburgh as well.

"We pride ourselves in being an open and receiving synagogue and we are sending a message that that’s not going to change," said Exler. "People draw strength from each other, and they need that. There is a weightiness, there is a vulnerability and fear. There is a sense of the strength of our community that is on display."

Rabbi Mendy Hecht, director of Chabad of Forest Hills North, said he had a special handout printed for this weekend’s services that includes the names of all the victims and Psalms in both Hebrew and English.

“We want to remember them, emulate them and what they stood for,” he said of the victims. “We are all suffering from this tragedy … it’s important to be together and bring strength so we can spread the message of hope and light and pushing away the darkness.”

In addition to helping congregants deal with the overwhelming emotions in the aftermath of the shooting, many are encouraging their members to #ShowUpForShabbat, a campaign aimed at showing solidarity with the Tree of Life synagogue. Participants include the Reform temples Central Synagogue and Temple Emanu-El, both of which shared the campaign on their Facebook pages.

"I think in moments of trauma, people look for opportunities to surround themselves with others who share their values and draw strength from the people around them, all the more so when the trauma is an attack on your own religious community," said Rabbi Joshua Davidson, the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, who said he expects the number of congregants attending Shabbat (typically 200 to 300 people) to double this weekend. 

"I think people draw strength from being surrounded by others who share their faith, their history, their values. I think people draw strength from the truths within their religious traditions and the pursuit of what’s right and good. And I think the act of continuing to do what we do, coming to synagogue, studying that tradition, surrounding ourselves with others, brings us strength and gives us courage in order to keep going."

As part of the effort, the AJC put out a suggested sermon to help rabbis prepare for Shabbat.

"The idea that I’m trying to get out there is we can’t be afraid — if we are afraid to live as proud Jews, if we are afraid to live as proud anyone, then the terrorists win," said Rabbi Robert D. Judd, of the Bay Ridge Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue that is participating in the campaign. "For something like this, we can turn our mourning into action. The lives that were needlessly ended, we can work together for the ideas they lived for. We can show we are not afraid and we are proud."

Many synagogues are also turning to their interfaith counterparts this weekend, welcoming community support regardless of religion. 

"We are, as many congregations are, turning it into a solidarity Shabbat," said Rabbi Joel Mosbacher of Temple Shaaray Tefila, a Reform temple on the Upper East Side, adding that they’ve invited leaders from mosques and churches to join them. "The reality that we’re not alone in abhorring hate, abhorring xenophobia, abhorring anti-Semitism, that not-aloneness will be on display."

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in midtown said she expects a group from the Islamic Center at NYU to be standing outside the synagogue on Friday to show their support, just as members of the synagogue have done for the Islamic Center during their prayers. 

"It will be deeply moving," said Kleinbaum of the support. "The feeling is all targeted groups feel like they’re alone. And the most powerful thing we can do … we can make sure that none of us feels alone, that we’re in this together."

Yet while many synagogues are fostering a feeling of openness, security is not far from the minds of many. At Temple Shaaray Tefila, Mosbacher said there will be an increased security presence, as well as at Orthodox congregation Young Israel of Sunnyside.

"We have a combination lock on the door and members will be notified how to get in. We have camera system and we know the faces of our regular members. We’ve been in contact with the local police — they will be patrolling the area and different synagogues over the weekend," said the Queens temple’s Rabbi Reuven Stengel. "Hatred, bigotry, anti-Semitism, unfortunately, still exists. The more we get together, the more we show that we are all human beings."

But Rabbi Shimon Hecht of Park Slope’s Congregation B’nai Jacob, an Orthodox synagogue, said that while synagogue leaders were meeting to discuss security measures, they wouldn’t be hiring an armed guard to stand at the door. The synagogue will also be dedicating its monthly Friday night dinner to the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting and has invited a guest speaker from Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood housing the Tree of Life synagogue.

"Something like this happens, an accident or a tragedy happens, you have to make sure … that you will be safe," he said, but added: "We are not going to get scared and hide under our covers."

With Lisa L. Colangelo