Community vigil draws hundreds to stand against hate

By ALAN SMASON, Special to the CCJN

Hundreds of members of the Jewish community and friends from the outside community at large assembled at Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation on Sunday evening, October 28,  to hear rabbis and elected officials speak out against the tragic shooting in Pittsburgh on Saturday.

U. S. Representative Steve Scalise (R), himself a victim of violence through gunfire, speaks to the hundreds gathered at Shir Chadash. (Photo by Alan Smason)

The event organized by Shir Chadash with coordination from Metairie Rabbis David Gerber of Reform Congregation Gates of Prayer and Gabriel Greenberg of Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans to rally the city after the horrific events at the Tree of Life Synagogue that left 11 dead and six wounded.

Understandably, with news reports still fresh and the names and descriptions of the deceased only having been released nine hours earlier, the first speakers – Reform Rabbi Alexis Berk of Touro Synagogue and Orthodox Rabbi Yossie Nemes of the Metairie Chabad Center – expressed anger and outrage at what had occurred, the worst attack on American Jews in the country’s history.

“I just feel really angry, right now,” Berk began, “Angry that we are gathering again as citizens and members of communities that mourn and grieve atrocities at the human hand.” Berk cited sources in the Talmud and by poet Nathan White that suggest anger is a form of care connected to powerlessness. “Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for.” 

Rabbi Yossie Nemes of the Gerson Katz Chabad Center of Metairie. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Nemes suggested that Jews should flock to temples and synagogues in the weeks ahead to show a sign of solidarity with the victims in Pittsburgh. “An attack on the Etz Chaim, Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, is an attack not only on Shir Chadash, but on Gates of Prayer and Beth Israel and Chabad Center and all the other synagogues in New Orleans,” Nemes proclaimed. “An attack on Rose (Mallinger) and all the other ten victims is a personal attack on each and every one of us as Jews. They were after us and they found them.”

One of the most emotional of the moments was when United States Representative Steve Scalise (R), the Republican Whip in the House of Representatives, ascended the bimah to address the crowd. Scalise, who now walks with the assistance of a cane, was the target of gunfire himself last year that nearly killed him. “This was clearly an act against the Jewish people,” he began. “It was a clear display of anti-Semitism, of the bigotry that’s still out there and unfortunately still persists.”

In the face of that bigotry, Representative Scalise continued, the nation comes together. “Clearly there are people out there that have evil in their hearts – I’ve seen it personally,” he continued. “The one act of evil that I saw – that’s not what sticks with me. What sticks with me is that out of that one act of evil (were) the thousands of acts of kindness, of unity, of warmth. That’s what gave me strength.”

Scalise called upon the entire community to come together in the face of the tragedy and join together as an expression of fighting the hate and bigotry and to support the law enforcement officers who apprehended the suspect. “As we also see evil, we reflect and confront evil with unity. We are a united people who continue to stare down the evil that’s out there.”

ADL regional director Aaron Ahlquist. IPhoto by Alan Smason)

Aaron Ahlquist, the South Central Region director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) followed Scalise. “We’re living in a society where that narrow space between words of hate and acts of violence feels like it’s shrinking, where the impact of hate is now being counted in the number of lives lost” he said. “We all have the right to feel safe when we are in our houses of worship. The act of prayer in a sacred place should not put one’s life at risk. ADL stands with the people of Pittsburgh, the Jewish community of Greater New Orleans and all communities that are vulnerable to hate.”CouCou

Six of the seven New Orleans City Councilpersons spoke individually but stood together in solidarity with one another on the bimah. Council president Jason Williams incorrectly identified 97-year-old victim Ruth Mellinger as a Holocaust victim, but his words resonated strongly as he recalled how she died. “A 97-year-old…was killed for being Jewish. This week. In this country,” he began. “And that is horrid and that is shameful and it makes me angry.”

Williams continued: “An attack on a synagogue is an attack on any house of faith. An attack on a Jewish home is an attack on my home. An attack on a Jewish person is an attack on me. In the end, we don’t remember the words of our enemies. We remember the silence of our friends.”

District A City Councilman Joe Giarrusso III. (Photo by Alan Smason)

District A Councilman Joseph Giarusso III, a member of the Jewish community, said he was tried explaining to his children why they couldn’t be safe at a ceremony at a temple. He alluded to a bris (circumcision ceremony) which was being conducted at another congregation housed in the Tree of Life Synagogue building at the time of the attack.  He spoke about “the 3 c’s” Jews regard at the time of a bris, the first two of which were to renew their covenant with G-d and to follow the Commandments G-d had intended.

“The last ‘c’ that we heard a lot about tonight is community,” he continued. “I stand here before you tonight not only as a member of the New Orleans Jewish community, but here with all my brothers and sisters on the council, and that if there is one thing I am heartened by is by the outreach of other faith leaders who stand together with us. We stand committed to work with you and we know we share the sorrow of the people who perished in Pittsburgh. May their memories be a blessing.”

New Orleans City Council vice president Helena Moreno. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Council vice president Helena Moreno said she was worried.  “You are like I am struggling to understand why our country is being plagued by such terrible hate and violence,” she said. “What happened in Pittsburgh is an attack on all people of all different faiths. The local Catholic community actually has a prayer that we recite every Sunday – it’s our Family Prayer – and part of it says ‘Give us the perseverance to be a voice for life and human dignity.'”

“By all of us coming together,” Moreno stated, “We are that persevering voice calling for love, acceptance, peace, compassion and unity.  We all strongly stand with you and we will win.”

District B Councilman Jay Banks was somewhat pessimistic. He asked the gathering if they thought this would be the last time there would be such an assemblage. No one answered. “I am sick and tired of having to come to these,” he noted. “This week it was a Jewish synagogue. It’s been an African Methodist Episcopal Church. It has been mosques. It has been far too many instances like this. The question is:’When will the adults in the room going to step up and say we’ve got to stop this?'”

New Orleans District B Councilman Jay Banks. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Banks found blame on both sides of the aisle, because people of varying political backgrounds have been able to forgive excesses on their own sides, while excoriating their enemies. “Until we decide that we are going to hold people responsible who have the ability to be accountable and say ‘Hey, now, you’ve got to pump the brakes on this,’ it is going to continue,” he said. “I’m going to ask, collectively,  people around this country to stand up. The adults in the room have to stand up and send a message.”

Banks uttered a final warning. “The enemies of America will never destroy her from outside,” he concluded. “But be real. It can implode from inside as long as we allow this kind of foolishness to continue that implosion gets closer and closer every day.” 

District Councilpersons Kristin G. Palmer and Jarett Brossett also added their own remarks of support to the gathering. 

Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto made an impassioned promise to the crowd. Since the attack on Saturday, October 27, he said he had been asked to show support for the various Jewish houses of worship and other structures situated along the West Esplanade corridor. “We can’t let evil take that place. We have to make sure that we can come together (and) continue our worship, because if that happens, evil wins. It’s not acceptable,” the sheriff said.

Lopinto urged all Jewish congregations to fill their sanctuaries in the coming weeks in unity. “On behalf of me and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and the men and women that I lead, we’ll be outside to protect you. You come on inside and do what you have to do. We’ll be here for you.”

As if on cue, the house then erupted into rousing applause.

Arnie Fielkow, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of New Orleans spoke on behalf of the Jewish community along with the incoming chairman of the Federation Board of Trustees, Joshua Force. Force added his thanks for the showing of unity and also spoke to Federation’s implementation of a new committee whose mission is to provide better protection and security for area synagogues.  This new committee headed up with co-chairs Ahlquist and Irwin Lachoff, the gabbi at Congregation Beth Israel, will be charged with working with the national Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) dedicated security network and to provide the best practices moving into the future.

Rabbi David Gerber of Congregation Gates of Prayer. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Rabbi David Gerber of Congregation Gates of Prayer added his own insights about the Jewish people. “If you don’t know Jews, I will tell you we are a stubborn people,” he mused. “We are stiff-necked. We are strong. We are small, but we are mighty. We are adherents to a sacred tradition handed down to us by a storied past. we are no strangers to the fall, but we are masters to the rise.”

We are in a dark time, he said, but during the darkest times, Jews are commanded to find a blessing and seek out a spark of light wherever it may be found. “For the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh, we mourn with you. We stand beside you. Lean on us. We will hold fast to you, as the Book of Proverbs commands. May the divine spark reside inside every person of goodness, chase away the shadows.”

After all the other speakers had finished, Rabbi Silver added her own comments. She summoned up the imagery of a tall tree with a broad trunk, its uppermost leaves rustling in the wind. “She is a tree of life to those who hold fast to her and all who support her are happy. Etz chayim hi lamachazikim bah, v’tom’cheha m’ushar,” Silver said, reciting the original passage frrom the Book of Proverbs which rabbinic scholars have compared to the sum of Jewish learning and tradition, especially Torah. 

Shir Chadash Rabbi Deborah Silver. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Etz chaim, the tree of life, is so precious to us that we sing it to sing our teaching back into the ark where it waits for us to open again at the end of the Torah service on every Shabbat morning,” she acknowledged. “Etz chaim (Tree of Life), the name that this community chose for themselves, the name that should have meant the wisdom stood at the center and that their trunk, their branches, the sound of their leaves and the potential for their future would stand firm throughout the generations.”

But the rabbi continued, we live in a world where trees are vulnerable and are often destroyed. “And so when the congregation called Etz Chaim has been so cruelly struck, then it falls to us, each of us in this room, each of us in this community, each of us in this city, each of us across the world to be that tree, to be an etz chaim, each of us in our way,” she added. 

By becoming these living trees the most important function would be to represent the potential of the trees’ future, she said. “We have to represent the way that it is possible to grow again and we have to represent the possibility of growing deeper, growing stronger, growing more beautiful and reaching to the sky in the memory of those who have been lost,” Silver said. 

“We are trees of life. Let us make all of those we support happy,” she concluded. 

Cantor Joel Colman, cantorial soloist Victoria Cohen May and Cantor Kevin Margolius. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Rabbi Gabriel Greenberg of Congregation Beth Israel read the names of the dead aloud and sang the El Mole Rachamim prayer typically sung as graveside services or during the Yizkor memorial service. 

The Kaddish prayer, a prayer for the living that is recited in memory of a deceased loved one was led by Rabbi Reimer of Congregation Gates of Prayer. Borrowing portions of the prayer he used passages to help give a better understanding of a Jewish perspective on mass shootings. 

Following the recitation of Kaddish, Temple Sinai Cantor Joel Colman, Touro Synagogue Cantor Kevin Margolius and cantorial soloist Victoria Cohen May sang the second of two selections during the vigil. Heard earlier, the first selection was a rousing version of “Heal Us Now,” intended to ask in both Hebrew and English that there be healing of the body and the soul. Their last selection was the final portion of the Kaddish prayer that seeks peace, “Ose Shalom” by which the singers and rabbis led the assembled mass, speakers and guests out of the sanctuary.

Photos of the event:

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