We don’t have cable TV anymore, a financial decision for our family, but one that I’m sometimes grateful for. I can’t imagine turning on the television and watching live all the different scenes of violence and hatred that play out on a too-regular basis these days. When my kids were little, I didn’t want them to play violent video games, or with toy guns, because I felt imitating violence was too close to the real thing. I don’t ever want to get to the point that gun violence becomes “normal” because I watch its effects over and over again on the news.
The shooting (although massacre is a more apt word) at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday, Oct. 27, was one more act of hatred in what had been a busy week for hate in this country. (Just a few days before, a white man shot and killed two African Americans at a grocery store in Kentucky, and mail bombs were being found across the country, sent to people who’d been critical of the president.)
Eleven people died and others were injured when the suspect, 46-year-old Robert Bowers, opened fire at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. It was the worst attack on a Jewish community ever in the U.S. No doubt the shooting was front and center on the minds of Islanders as the M.V. Hebrew Center hosted a “Solidarity Shabbat” open to the entire community last Friday.
I’d never been to a Shabbat service before, and I’m willing to bet a lot of other people who went had never been either. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful religious services I’ve ever been to.
I knew it was going to be crowded, but I wasn’t prepared for how packed the Hebrew Center was. It felt like every inch of floor space was occupied in the large room where services are held. Just the fact that so many in the Island community came to be in solidarity with our Island’s Jewish community was enough to move me to tears. So many people in one room standing together to support one another was amazing.
Rabbi Caryn Broitman is leader of the Hebrew Center, and I’ve talked to her about topics related to this column before. Our conversations have almost always come around to some form of social justice, with Caryn stressing the importance of recognizing the dignity of all people. It’s more than just words for her, you can tell just by talking with her. It’s life.
When the service began and she led the congregation in song, Rabbi Broitman was struggling to sing through tears. “I don’t have a lot of experience leading a service like this,” she told everyone. “Hearing your voices is bringing tears to my eyes.”
At one point during the powerful service, guests stood up and said, “I bring greetings from Chilmark Community Church … from Good Shepherd Parish … from the Daughters of the American Revolution … from the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head … from Island Insight Meditation … from the Martha’s Vineyard Peace Council … from the Christian Science Society … from the Martha’s Vineyard schools …” The greetings went on and on. Island clergy from other places of worship were in attendance, as well as members of the Muslim community and state Rep. Dylan Fernandes and state Sen. Julian Cyr.
Fernandes said he was moved by the number of people in the room, saying, “it’s a reminder of how caring everyone here is.” He spoke powerfully, almost shouting, urging the crowd to speak up forcefully against the tide of violence. “Words matter …” he said. “Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect … everyone is welcome here … push back, don’t be silent … make your voice be heard.”
Laura Silber, one of the organizers of the Island group We Stand Together/Estamos Todos Juntos, spoke reminding the crowd that “fear is what drives hatred.” Silber’s organization is working with the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, and she said the Island still has no group devoted to ending gun violence.
There were many guests who spoke, all of them eloquently and with a certain sense of urgency. Caryn’s husband, Rabbi Brian Walt, ended the service with a prayer for hope, saying, “We must have hope.”
The service lasted an hour and a half, a long time to stand in one place, but many people did just that. All were invited to break bread with the congregation afterward, but I went home, looking for some quiet time to take it all in — the sheer number at the event, the beautiful music and singing that at times made me feel upbeat and buoyant despite the gravity of the situation. It was a beautiful service, just beautiful. And another reminder of why it’s so wonderful to live here, even if it feels insulated from all the scary events that are going on right now.
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