Austin Jewish Community Mourns, Interfaith Groups Reach Out in Wake of Pittsburgh Tragedy
Congregation Beth Israel staff found flowers on the synagogue's doorstep after the Pittsburgh attack. The unsigned note reads, "We love you more than they could ever hate you."Courtesy of Congregation Beth Israel.
By Tonyia Cone
In the aftermath of the tragic October attack at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Jewish communities across the country came together in a show of strength and to mourn the lives lost.
“JFNA is proud of the outpouring of support and solidarity from the 147 Jewish Federations and 300 Network communities across North America, as well as from the entirety of communities, organizations, and the State of Israel. We see this as a moment of great unification of purpose,” Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, and Mark Wilf, chair of the JFNA Board of Trustees, said in a statement.
In response, JFNA called for a #SolidarityShabbat. Partnering with the AJC’s #StandUpShabbat and the ADL’s #NeverIsNow virtual vigil, JFNA offered #SolidarityShabbat as a way for communities across the continent a way to heal and mourn together.
After Austinites of many backgrounds came together for a vigil at Shalom Austin’s JCC Community Hall and lawn the day after the attack, the Jewish community gathered in a show of solidarity and a reminder of the power of community at Shabbat services the following weekend.
Most, if not all, Austin congregations held some kind of Solidarity Shabbat service. Temple Beth Shalom had a Service of Hope and Healing, Congregation Beth Israel held a Solidarity Shabbat service, and Rabbi-Cantor Robbi Sherwin and Congregation Kol Halev for a Service of Shabbat and Healing.
Sherry Blum, Congregation Kol Halev president, said, “Our world is reeling from expressions of hatred that have caused untimely destruction to innocent worshippers. In our Jewish community in Pittsburgh, at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, and at the North Austin Muslim Community Center, we have seen death, destruction and pure hate.”
Congregation Tiferet Israel’s Rabbi Daniel Millner announced his congregation’s Shabbat of Solidarity, an opportunity to “stand together against anti-Semitism, prejudice, hate-mongering and bigotry in all of its evil forms.”
“Please take this Shabbat as a time to share prayer and fellowship with your fellow congregants, and make your presence felt and voices heard. By attending synagogue, you are showing the world that you are not afraid to be Jewish,” Millner said in the email message.
Congregation Agudas Achim held a Solidarity Shabbat service, where those present lit candles in memory of the 11 Jewish souls taken from the world as well as Shabbat candles. The service concluded with words of support and solidarity from friends in the religious and interfaith community and elected officials.
Rabbi Neil Blumofe said in a message before the service, “Please bring friends and neighbors with you to synagogue. We respond to hate with the generosity of our presence. Together we shall not be deterred.”
Blumofe also participated in a solidarity/ADL panel concerning anti-Semitism at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church.
Wandering Minyan lit 11 yahrzeit candles for the victims in Pittsburgh at their Shabbat service.
If Not Now held a song circle at the Capitol, sat shiva at the governor's mansion and built a memorial with 11 kippahs and stones.
Congregation Beth El held a Solidarity Shabbat service. Their turnout included a large crowd from the Jewish community as well as members from local Christian and Muslim communities, who shared stories of hope and faith.
“It was a very uplifting evening,” said Iris Koeller, Congregation Beth El volunteer.
Congregation Beth El's Hazzan Yitzhak Ben-Moshe said immediately following the shooting, a number of his non-Jewish friends, including Christian clergy, reached out to him on Facebook, and even people he just met, upon seeing his kippah, expressed condolences and support.
Koeller added, “We were also deeply touched to receive a letter from Reverend Madeline Shelton Hawley at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church also showing immense ‘love and solidarity’ for the Jewish people and for us as a congregation. The letter spoke of ‘peace and justice among all people and following the way of God that we have learned from God.’ The letter finished with these inspiring words, ‘You are not alone, and we will not tolerate anti-Semitism in our community.’”
Anonymous strangers also left flowers on Congregation Beth Israel’s doorstep. One note read, “We love you more than they could ever hate you,” while another said, “Love not hate.”
Congregation Beth Israel and Temple Beth Shalom each received a statement of solidarity signed by eight Austin Muslim clergy members. Multiple interfaith organizations and individuals reached out to Temple Beth Shalom, including Bishop Joe Vásquez of the Diocese of Austin, who sent Rabbi Alan Freedman a letter.
Members of Austin’s faith community reached out to Congregation Kol Halev too. The congregation received a letter from an Episcopal minister expressing sympathy and solidarity, and the first call Rabbi Lev Baesh received from anyone in Austin was from Sheikh Umer Esmail, the Imam at Nueces Mosque.
“He reached out and offered whatever help we might need as a Jewish community. I was born in Pittsburgh and my grandfather built, and served as rabbi, a large congregation down the street from the one attacked. Nothing moved me more, since the mass murder, than his call," said Baesh.
St. Austin Catholic Parish, Texas Hillel and the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest, also recently showed solidarity with the Jewish community and the fight against hatred, not directly in response to the Pittsburgh tragedy, but in remembrance of the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, state-sanctioned, anti-Jewish riots led by Nazi soldiers and Hitler Youth in 1938 that touched off the systemic persecution of the Jewish community by the Nazis.
The mid-November exhibit, hosted by St. Austin Catholic Parish, “Kristallnacht Remembered,” included displays of Jewish prayer and devotional items, a Torah scroll, and other items from Jewish life, as well as a slideshow with images of the destruction of Kristallnacht.
“A tour of this memorial exhibit is an opportunity to learn about the destruction that can result from hatred and intolerance,” the website stated.
Gregg Philipson, a member of Austin’s Jewish community who supplied some of the artifacts in the exhibit, said elementary and middle school students at St. Austin’s attended the film and exhibit, that there was a memorial to the 11 murdered victims from the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue in the courtyard fountain area, and there was a multi-religious section of the exhibit so the students can learn about many faiths in addition to their own. He also described a photo exhibit about the Holocaust for all to see while entering their main sanctuary for services.
“With all the hate and anger around us all every day this is a great way to help break down these barriers that divide our communities,” said Philipson. ■