By Sharon Wisch-Ray
The pain felt by the standing-room-only crowd in the Aaron Family Sanctuary was palpable Sunday evening at a community observance in the wake of the slaughter of 11 Jewish worshippers at the hands of an anti-Semitic gunman at the Tree of Life Synagogue, Saturday, Oct. 27.
On the bimah were Rabbi Elana Zelony of Congregation Beth Torah; Reverend Rachel Baughman, senior pastor of Oak Lawn United Methodist Church and vice chairman of Faith Forward; Rabbi David Stern of Temple Emanu-El; Bradley Laye, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas; and Rabbi Ari Sunshine of Congregation Shearith Israel. They were joined by Cantors Vicky Glikin and Leslie Niren of Temple Emanu-El, Hazzan Itzhak Zhrebker of Shearith Israel and Cantor Devorah Avery and Cantor Emeritus Don Croll of Temple Shalom, who led the estimated 800 people in comforting and inspirational singing. Dallas Police Chief Renee Hall also addressed those gathered.
A number of themes resonated at Shearith Israel Sunday night. Among them were:
•Every life is precious
•Ending gun violence
•We are not powerless
•God will light the way
Every life is precious
As he opened the program, Laye emphasized the value that Jews choose life over all else. “Our values place human life above anything else,” said Laye, quoting Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson. “We are to live by Torah, not to die by Torah.”
Rabbi Stern spoke the names of each victim. He explained that human nature is to want to know the details and the specifics of the tragedy. He said it’s not as if our grief is calibrated based on the number of people who perished. “We want the facts and figures but the Talmud teaches us a different arithmetic. Every life is of infinite value, every single one,” Stern said.
In his remarks Sunshine said, “We can never stop speaking up and defending the innate and immeasurable worth of every human being regardless of their faith, skin color, gender or sexual preference.”
Hateful speech may lead to hateful behavior and the Torah is filled with the idea that words matter. “We have forgotten what our tradition teaches about the power of speech. Forgotten that incendiary rhetoric by national leaders does catch fire. Forgotten our own history,” said Stern.
In her statement from Faith Forward Dallas, Reverend Baughman said, “We hold accountable leaders who use divide-and-conquer strategies and inflammatory rhetoric and then take credit for being supportive of grieving communities of those affected by those who follow by example.”
Laye charged the gathering to take the mantra when you see something, say something to the next level with regard to hate speech. “When you see a racist post on Facebook or Instagram or a tweet on Twitter, say something. When you see a child being indoctrinated with something as simple as an anti-Semitic joke, say something. If you experience a hateful person verbally accosting someone who is in the line at a grocery store or Starbucks, don’t stand by, stand up and say something.”
Rabbi Sunshine said it is each person’s responsibility to respond to hate.
“Whenever the forces of bigotry, hate and evil rise up against us, it is incumbent upon us to walk in God’s path as we respond. We use our voices to speak out against hateful and inflammatory rhetoric and violence perpetrated in its wake and we speak powerfully for the values of kindness, justice, compassion, inclusivity and love.”
Ending gun violence
“I know right now it seems impossible to believe that there will ever be an end to these acts of senseless violence. It’s more tragic each and every day,” said Dallas Police Chief Renee Hall. She expressed her frustration that there are too many vigils and that the police share the Jewish community’s pain. “We hurt and we are angry too … bothered that the level of protection we provide doesn’t seem to be enough.”
Hall pledged that the Dallas Police Department would try to keep the community safe at all costs. “We will continue to fight for the safety for this community and the country as a whole,” she said.
Stern said that the American Jewish community sadly joins too many others who have been in the same position.
“We know it’s happened in other places. To people of other backgrounds. In other houses of worship. In other circles of study and prayer. We know our dead join a list of those murdered in mass shootings, the list that is already far too long. We know that dear friends, leaders of other faith communities know this pain all too well and yet we take a moment to say that these were ours.”
Rev. Baughman’s comments lifted the crowd to their feet.
“We also believe that sensible gun policies should be in place that respect gun ownership but limit weapons of war being put in the hands of those who might turn them on us.”
We are not powerless
Exercise your right to vote. “We must lobby and vote on these issues like our lives depend on it,” said Laye to rousing applause.
“We cannot allow the acts of one person to destroy everyone’s freedom to feel safe and to worship in the house that they choose,” said Hall, encouraging the gathering to stay strong.
Stern prayed, “Thank you for this gathering and the strength it gives us and thank you, God, even for this pain. Never would we wish this upon ourselves or anyone else. But may this pain be our teacher. May it break our hearts open to awareness of the pain and fear our neighbors live with every day. May it awaken us to the preciousness of our own lives, the power of our own choices, help us to guard against forces of violence and hate whatever their source. Help us keep our families safe.”
God will light the way
How is one to recover from the pain of such unspeakable acts? Each of the clergy explained that allowing God to light the way is the answer.
Stern concluded his remarks with this prayer, “Help us, dear God, to lift our sights beyond the shadow of this day in solidarity, in compassion, with commitment and hope; may we keep showing up unafraid for each other, for the Torah we hold close, for the undying values for which we stand for our companions on the path to justice and peace. In these days of darkness, may the Holy One light our way.”
Rabbi Sunshine said many of the answers can be found in Psalm 27, which is recited daily in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and through the end of Yom Kippur.
“We ask God to teach me your way. Adonai, guide me on the level path in order to confound all those who watch my every move and oppress me.”
He added, “We must also never lose our faith, our strength, our courage and our undying conviction that our world is a good and beautiful place.
“We must continue to shine our light and God’s light upon it to illumine even these darkest of times. Hope in Adonai, be strong, take courage and hope in Adonai.”
Zelony gave the benediction, Psalm 23. After each stanza, she shared her own interpretation.
“God led us to this sanctuary and in this moment we have everything we need.
“We rest and begin to recover our sense that ki tov, the world is still good.
“We are reminded of all the righteous action we can take. We are not powerless.
“When we heard the news shadows fell, but we knew we were not alone.
“With them you will guide us out of this terrible darkness.
“Your children Israel do not hide, we gather tonight with courage.
“Our hearts fill with gratitude for every one of our brothers and sisters not of the Jewish faith who answered our call, who came here tonight, and there are so many of you.
“Goodness and love will catch up with us and restore our sense of security and peace.
“For God, you are Ain Od; there is nothing else but you, eternal in time and space.”
As it began, with song, the service concluded with the cantors leading the gathering in the “Mishaberah” arrangement by Debbie Friedman and “Oseh Shalom.”
“May the one who blessed us with peace also bless us in this time of hurt, in this time of pain; bless those of us who are present, bless those of us who are beyond these walls.
“There is hope for all of us,” concluded Cantor Glikin.
Additional services were held throughout North Texas throughout the week. On Monday, there was a service in Dallas at Ohr Hatorah and at Beth Israel Colleyville. At press time, a Jewish Communal and City-Wide Night of Prayer, Remembrance and Unity was scheduled for Thursday evening at Fort Worth Congregation Ahavath Sholom. Many congregations will be participating in a Solidarity Shabbat Nov. 2-3. For more information, check with your synagogue.