The carnage on Saturday at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a gunman reportedly shouting anti-Semitic slurs killed 11 people, hit Jewish people around the nation and in the South Suburbs hard.
Local faith leaders, led by Rabbis Carmit Harari and Ellen Dreyfus and the Rev. Bob Klonowski, responded by convening an interfaith gathering of lamentation and healing on Tuesday night at Shir Tikvah in Homewood, formerly B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom.
The evening began with expressions of sorrow at the loss of life in the shooting that left 11 people dead and six people wounded. Eleven clergy members representing local Jewish, Christian and Muslim congregations each lit a candle as the names of the victims were read and the audience intoned, “We remember you” for each.
“While their lives have ended, their spirits will always burn bright in the hearts of their family and friends and in our hearts as well. Tonight, we remember them,” Harari said.
After the candle-lighting ceremony, each member of the clergy was invited to say a few words. Themes common among their comments and readings included sorrow at the loss of life and solidarity with the Jewish people.
Rabbi John Bush noted that his sorrow was compounded by the killing Oct. 25 of two African Americans in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, a suburb of his hometown, Louisville. The alleged shooter in that case had tried to enter a predominantly black church before the shooting, leading observers to suspect it might have been a hate crime.
The alleged shooter in Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers, faces a 44-count indictment that includes murder and hate crime charges, among others.
Harari said the gathering was intended to begin the process of healing for those affected by the tragedy and the hate that apparently motivated it.
“Despite the occasion which brings us together this evening, we are so deeply grateful for the presence of friends and neighbors. The outpouring of support for the Jewish community has been tremendous,” she said. “We hope that tonight will help to bring healing to bring a bit of wholeness and a reminder that every human being is created in the image of God, that every life is sacred and that hatred is never the answer.”
Khalid Mozaffar, school principal and director of communication and outreach for the American Islamic Association mosque in Frankfort, offered words of the prophet Muhammad that were echoed by a number of speakers.
“Muhammad said, ‘We, the believers, are like one body in our solidarity, mercy and empathy. If one part of us suffers, the rest of the body suffers along with that part.’ What this teaches us is that we are all one family,” he said. “If the Jewish part suffers, the Christian part suffers, the Muslim part suffers.”
The sense of solidarity was also expressed in music. The service included a hymn written by Klonowski and sung to the melody of Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluiah.” The service closed with more than 200 people linking hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.”
Between those songs were other songs and prayers of healing, and at one point Dreyfus brought out her guitar and led the singing of “This Land is Your Land.”
“There’s nothing like American folk music to bring us all together,” she said. “And we have to remember that this land is my land and your land and all of our land and ain’t nobody going to tell us any different.”
Dreyfus also offered those present an opprtunity to take action in the fight against hatred.
“Everyone of us has the power to heed the fearmongers or to forge a better path,” she said. “Here is one small, important way. One of my colleagues asked his community to take a pledge: ‘While interacting with members of my own faith or ethnic or gender community or with others, if I hear hateful comments from anyone about members of any other community, I pledge to stand up for the other and to speak up to challenge bigotry in any form.”
The evening had the desired effect for some of those present. A number of people approached organizers afterward and thanked them for creating the occasion.
Susan Bayer of Homewood said she cried on Sunday when she heard the names of the victims read.
“This is the first time I’ve felt any peace,” she said. “This was a necessary thing to bring us together.”
One of the clergymen who spoke at the gathering shared Bayer’s feelings. The news of the tragedy hit Fr. Jeremy Froyen of St. John the Evangelist Church in Flossmoor especially hard. Froyen, who joined the Flossmoor congregation Oct. 1, was serving at a church in Pembroke Pines, Florida, when the Parkland school massacre occurred in February.
Froyen said one member of his youth group died in the shooting and several were trapped in school closets for hours. The news of the Tree of Life shooting brought those fresh memories back.
“On Saturday morning when I turned on the TV and saw the news report, it was like a punch in the gut,” he said. “All I could think was, ‘Not again, not again!'”
But participating in the gathering at Shir Tikvah was helpful, he said.
“All weekend I was thinking, ‘I need to respond to this and I don’t know what to say.’ I’m thankful for gatherings like this that give me an opportunity to put my feelings into words and finally go back and send a note to our congregation,” he said.
In addition to Harari, Dreyfus, Klonowski, Mozaffar, Bush and Froyen, local clergy who participated in the service included the Rev. Andrea Denney, the Rev. Fred Lyon, the Rev. Paul J. H. Haberstock, the Rev. Chris Wogaman, the Rev. Larry G. Schneekloth and Imam Elam J.Muhammad.