Elana Kaminetzky, 47, and Steve Halprin, 55, reflect different segments of the Jewish community, one steeped in practice and observance, the other unaffiliated with any house of worship. But both felt compelled Sunday evening to attend a vigil on the Upper West Side for the 11 Jews murdered on Shabbat at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh — and both did so for the same reason: the solace and strength of community.
Jennifer Zwiebel, 46, also attended the vigil, but her thoughts focused as much on the two young children she brought along — her 7-year-old daughter and her 10-year-old son — as they did on her own emotions. Among her concerns: how to convey to them that their world is still a safe one, inhabited by more good than evil.
The tragedy shook many Jews to the core, changing how they regard their own safety in today’s America and prompting more than a few to wonder if the same thing could happen to them. It was also followed by vigils throughout the country, including Sunday’s event on the Upper West Side.
Hosted by Congregation Ansche Chesed and organized by the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, the vigil drew about 2,400 people – a crowd that, at one point, wrapped around a four-block area as they stood in line, waiting to get inside. Roughly 1,400 people made it inside the synagogue, while an estimated 1,000 people stood in the chilly night air outside. But they, too, had the chance to express their grief and solidarity after several rabbis and communal leaders left the sanctuary to lead an impromptu vigil on the steps of the synagogue.
The JCC worked closely with Ansche Chesed, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, SAJ and the Park Avenue Synagogue in organizing the vigil, said Rabbi Abigail Treu, director of the JCC’s Center for Jewish Living. It also included the participation of more than a dozen other synagogues and Jewish day schools in upper Manhattan, representing all major streams of Judaism.
Speakers included Rabbi Joy Levitt, the JCC’s executive director, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Ansche Chesed and Rabbi Rolando Matalon of B’nai Jeshurun, as well as Elisha Wiesel, son of the late Elie Wiesel, and M. Bari Khan, a city official representing the Muslim Community Network. Other communal leaders who spoke included Robert S. Kapito, board chairman of UJA-Federation of New York, and Michael S. Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
Rabbi Levitt began her remarks by reciting the names of the 11 congregants murdered in Pittsburgh. “Tonight, we mourn; tonight, we cry; tonight, we hold those whom we lost a little tighter,” she said. “And tomorrow, tomorrow we keep working. We resist; we yell; we fight; we find the resolve within us, within our tradition, and within one another and this, our strong community, to build a society that is safe and fair, just and kind.”
The same message of courage and steadfastness in the face of horror came from Rabbi Matalon.
These are also hours of resolve.
“We are heartbroken and shaken, but not entirely surprised,” he said. “Our country has been awash with divisiveness, hatred and violence that continue to threaten and claim lives everywhere.” But, he added, “These are also hours of resolve.”
Khan, a board member of the Muslim Community Network, greeted the mourners by saying, “Today, I am Jewish” — a comment reminiscent of the slogan “I am a Muslim, too,” created by a local rabbi several years during an especially tough time for American Muslims.
One of the most resonant speeches was delivered by Wiesel, whose comments were applauded several times by his listeners.
Speaking about the country’s polarization, even in the face of “unspeakable tragedy,” Wiesel said he wondered how his father would respond at a moment like this. “He didn’t fight or lower himself into the muck with those who only had nasty things to say,” Wiesel added. “He didn’t debate Holocaust deniers, or right-wing nationalists, or anti-Zionists whose total and obsessive pre-occupation with Israel exposed them as anti-Semites.” And yet he also didn’t “avoid the rest of the world,” choosing, instead, to listen, to speak out, to “put questions to those who needed to hear them” and to live “as a Jew.”
Every member of the Jewish community has “a role to play in confronting hatred,” Wiesel continued. “If you are a Jew who believes in progressive values, then it is your prerogative and responsibility to fix the left in this country,” especially “if you are associated with a movement” that links the rights of women and the rights of African-Americans with anti-Israel groups. “If you are on the conservative side as a Jew, then it’s your prerogative and responsibility to, for God’s sake, fix the Republican Party,” especially “if you are associated with a movement” that regards assault rifles “as our national inheritance” or that fails to have compassion for the stranger. “And if you somehow find yourself caught in the center … it is your prerogative and responsibility to build bridges and create safe space where well-meaning and thoughtful people can come together and find solutions. Make this world better where you are,” Wiesel concluded.
Among those who participated in the outdoor vigil were Elana Kaminetzky and her stepson, Harris Cohen, 13.
“I thought it was important to come together as a community in response to something so tragic,” said Kaminetzky, who lives on the Upper East Side but belongs to an Orthodox shul, the Jewish Center, on the Upper West Side.
Saturday’s carnage scared her, she told The Jewish Week, adding that her father was a Holocaust survivor from Poland and that he and his family were aided after the war by HIAS, then called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. It was HIAS, which today helps refugees from around the world, that aroused the gunman’s anger and was the subject of his rant on social media before he attacked the Tree of Life.
Getting together as a community “provides comfort and shows strength,” said Kaminetzky, in a comment with which her stepson agreed. Cohen, a student at Hunter College High School, said he, too, had been terrified by the carnage and that coming together as a community helps during hard times.
Steve Halprin, a resident of Chelsea and a member of no synagogue, went to Sunday night’s vigil with his sister for much the same reason, he said — because he found it “reassuring.”
“I wanted to do something and not sit at home,” said Halprin. “It’s a natural instinct to be with other people” and think together about what happened “instead of seeing it on TV.”
Among those who had the toughest time this weekend were members of the community who, like Zwiebel, have young children.
Standing in Ansche Chesed’s lobby with her daughter, 7, and her son, 10, said she had no control over how her children learned of the tragedy. But she does feel she has some control over the messages they might derive from it.
Zwiebel, whose husband was away on Saturday, said she simply told her children the truth – “that there was someone with a lot of hate and a lot of anger,” that he had a lot of guns and that he used them to kill Jews. “We also spoke about the reasons why someone would feel so much hate.”
At the same time, though, she made sure to tell her children that many people are working in different ways to make things better. “I think that that’s a very important point to make,” she said.
Zwiebel also admitted that, privately, she “was feeling a lot more hopeless” at first. But “the act of having that conversation [with her children] helped ground me,” providing a different perspective. She also received assistance from her children’s Jewish school, which emailed tips to parents on how they might talk about the subject with their kids, she said. The email also included links to resources, including an article on helping children understand anti-Semitism.
Earlier in the day, staff members of the ADL’s New York-New Jersey Region brought together more than a dozen elected officials, faith leaders and foreign diplomats in its New York headquarters to reflect on Saturday’s tragedy. Organized for the press, the event also featured Devorah Halberstam, the Brooklyn resident whose 16-year-old son, Ari, was killed on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994 by a Lebanese gunman.
“I’m here to speak because I know what the taste of death is like,” said Halberstam, drawing tears from some in the room. Pointing out that her son, too, was killed because he was Jewish, she said, “I know what it feels like on the day after.”