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Rabbi: I couldn't stop crying

Rabbi Myers returns to the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh with CNN's Alisyn Camerota after an anti-Semitic shooting in his place of worship claimed 11 lives.

Posted: Nov 4, 2018 10:07 PM
Updated: Nov 4, 2018 10:21 PM

In a short but impassioned sermon Saturday, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers blamed politicians for a rise in hateful rhetoric, saying it led to the massacre at his synagogue last week in which 11 Jews were slain in the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history.

Myers said he delivered that message personally to President Donald Trump when he and first lady Melania Trump visited Tree of Life/Or L'Simcha synagogue, the site of the shooting here in Pittsburgh, on Tuesday.

"I said to him, 'Mr. President, hate speech leads to hateful actions. Hate speech leads to what happened in my sanctuary, where seven of my congregants were slaughtered. I witnessed it with my eyes."

According police, the man accused of the attack yelled that he wanted to "kill Jews," in part because Jewish groups have been helping refugees settle in the United States.

Myers was speaking at a "unity" Shabbat service at Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh, where members of all three congregations that met at Tree of Life, as well as other members of the city's Jewish community, came together to worship Saturday morning.

Wearing a rainbow-colored prayer shawl and a Pittsburgh-themed yarmulke, Rabbi Myers made his distaste for Washington clear but also said he does not "foist blame" on the President or "any one person" for the attack.

Myers also addressed criticism he has received from fellow Jews irked that he met with Trump, who has been accused of using anti-Semitic tropes and hateful rhetoric. Trump has repeatedly denied the accusations, noting that his daughter and son-in-law are Jewish.

"The scourge of anti-Semitism cannot be ignored, cannot be tolerated and cannot be allowed to continue," Trump said last week.

Myers said members of the Trump administration, including the president's personal secretary and son-in-law Jared Kushner, have contacted him to offer support this week.

But after meeting with Trump, Myers said Saturday, some Jews accused the rabbi of "going to the dark side." One even suggested that he get "un-circumcised."

"I said, 'OK, you go first,'" Myers said, drawing laughter from the congregation.

More seriously, Myers said he drew on Jewish tradition in meeting with the President, particularly the Bible's insistence on welcoming strangers. That was the message of the Torah portion that would have been read in his synagogue during the Shabbat service last Saturday before the gunman began his rampage, the rabbi said.

A week later, more than 600 people filled Congregation Beth Shalom for the Shabbat service, including many members of the three congregations attacked a little more than a mile away at Tree of Life. Members of all three congregations took turns reading the portions of the Torah.

Near the beginning of the service, the congregation observed a minute and 11 seconds of silence, commemorating the 11 Jews murdered on October 27.

"God did not have anything to do with this," Beth Kissileff said in a heartfelt speech at the unity service.

A writer and wife of a rabbi at New Light Congregation, one of the three congregations that met inside Tree of Life, Kissileff drew applause when she continued, "That is not our theology. Humans are given free will. We have a choice between good and evil. Some people choose to do evil. Our job is to make sure that those who choose evil don't have access to assault rifles.

About a mile away, in front of the still-closed Tree of Life Synagogue, its former rabbi, Chuck Diamond, led a Shabbat service outside on Saturday morning.

"This was a place that stood, for so many people, for joy," Diamond said. It was the site of bris ceremonies, bar mitvahs and weddings. The rabbi urged the survivors not to feel guilty, but to remember that they have been blessed with the gift of life.

A makeshift congregation

As Friday evening fell, with police tape marking the barriers of their makeshift congregation, members of Pittsburgh's Jewish community welcomed the Sabbath outside of the Tree of Life synagogue.

About 50 men locked arms and swayed, harmonizing in Hebrew under darkening skies, while police looked on and pilgrims laid stones and flowers at memorials for the 11 congregants who were slain. The building is still closed while police process the crime scene.

Many of the women sang, too, though they stood off to the side. Children ran back and forth playing between their parents' legs. A father gently wiped tears from his teenage son's cheeks, consoling him softly as the congregation prayed.

At one point, the service was stopped to thank a member of the FBI who had helped the Chevrah Kadisha, the Jewish organization that helps prepare bodies for burial. Afterward, the congregation broke into "Al Hanisim," a Hanukkah song that commemorates Jews' perseverance in the face of violent oppression. Though not normally a part of Shabbat services, no one had to ask why the song was appropriate to sing on this night.

"The Jewish people know from our history that, no matter how bad things seem, we can always pull together, we will always persevere," said Rabbi Sam Weinberg, principal of Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, whose students helped organize the Shabbat service through text messages Friday.

"Six days after, right here," he continued, pointing at the Tree of Life synagogue that loomed nearby, "the most horrible and terrible thing happened, we can still come together as a people and recover a little bit of the peace of Shabbat."

The service capped an emotional day in Pittsburgh as the city's Jewish community buried the last of their dead. As night fell, it seemed as if half of Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh's historically Jewish neighborhood, was walking home from Sabbath services, huddling together against the cold.

'A circle no one wants to be a part of'

The last funeral for the 11 Jews killed a week ago was held Friday. Rose Mallinger, 97, was remembered for her strong will and commitment to Tree of Life.

Under the soaring vaults of Rodef Shalom's sanctuary, another of Pittsburgh large and historic synagogues, Mallinger's family and friends praised her zest for life.

"She was 97, but she was not done," said Rabbi Myers, who led Mallinger's congregation at Tree of Life/Or L'Simcha. "She had spunk."

Later in the service, Myers said that "an angel" had visited him Friday morning, just as his spiritual strength was waning. That angel, he said, was the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, where a gunman killed nine members in 2015.

Some in the congregation gasped with Myers called Manning to the front of the synagogue.

Wearing a button commemorating the Charleston massacre, Manning said he traveled to Pittsburgh on Friday to offer moral sustenance, show solidarity and to "pay it forward," after many Americans stepped up to support his church.

At Mallinger's memorial service, the pastor read Psalm 23 and told the congregation that his church "mourns with you, is here with you and will always be here with you."

After the service, a long line of mourners waited to speak with Manning, hugging him and tearfully thanking him for coming to Pittsburgh. One woman sobbed as she lamented a rise in white nationalism, while the pastor stoically consoled her.

Pittsburgh's Jews and his Charleston community share a common and tragic bond, Manning said in a brief interview afterward.

"We are part of a circle that no one wants to be a part of," he said. "What we have to do, today, and every day, is to make sure that that circle doesn't get any bigger."

Manning was just one of many people across the world moved by last week's anti-Semitic attack.

Myers said he received a call from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday. After a brief discussion about what language to converse in (Myers said they chose Hebrew, their "mother tongue") Netanyahu told him that all of Israel mourns with Pittsburgh, Myers said.

Outside Tree of Life, pilgrims gathered to place flowers and signs at the memorials for the 11 Jews killed by the gunman.

Among them was Jody Yoken and her 9-year-old son, Ryder, who were in town from Toronto for a hockey tournament. Yoken said her son, who attends a Hebrew school, has asked difficult questions in the aftermath of the attack: Are we safe? Why don't people like us?

"I tell him that some people have difficulty accepting differences," Yoken said, "and that's why we have to try to be as accepting of other people as we can be."

A global outpouring

The Twitter hashtag #ShowupforShabbat has been trending all week, with communities in the United States urging people to attend synagogues and show their support in the aftermath of the attack.

In Britain, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, wrote on Twitter that he would attend synagogue Saturday to stand "shoulder to shoulder with Jewish Londoners for their Shabbat service to show solidarity to the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting last weekend."

The UK Jewish community was also rallying to show solidarity, with leaders urging people to attend services.

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