For ex-Oakland rabbi, Charleston tragedy hits home

The former associate rabbi at Oakland’s Beth Jacob Congregation now finds himself grappling with unspeakable tragedy in his new neighborhood: Charleston, South Carolina. Rabbi Michael Z. Davies is now spiritual leader of a Modern Orthodox congregation just a few miles from Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where nine people were massacred on June 17.

Rabbi Michael Davies

“This hit Charleston — and all the nation, really — very hard,” said Davies, who served Beth Jacob for five years with Rabbi Judah Dardik and also directed the Orthodox shul’s youth education and programming.

But in Charleston, where he has been spiritual leader at the suburban Congregation Dor Tikvah for two years, the impact is understandably more intense.

Davies immediately sent messages to his congregants, writing that “this affects all of us personally,” he said in a phone interview. “I said we have to pray for the people at Emanuel and offer a prayer of peace for our community at large.”

In 2013, Davies and his wife, Ora — who were both teachers at Oakland Hebrew Day School — left the Bay Area for Charleston with their young children, who now number four. Their oldest attended Gan Mah Tov preschool at Beth Jacob for two years. With connections through two schools as well as the synagogue, the family continues to have strong ties to the Oakland community.

The day after the shooting in Charleston, when his new community was still in shock, Davies flew to Oakland for a scheduled event at Beth Jacob. Before heading to the airport, he attended a vigil at another African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston.

“People in Oakland wanted my reaction — of course the shooting was all over the news — but I hadn’t fully been able to formalize my ideas around it,” Davies said. “I love Oakland, but it was very hard that day for me not to be in Charleston.”

When he returned to South Carolina on June 24, Davies arranged to have a memorial tribute set up in the lobby of the Charleston JCC, where Dor Tikvah holds services. About 60 families are members of the congregation, established as a minyan in 2006 and incorporated in 2012.

A memorial to those slain at the AME church was placed at the JCC in Charleston, where Congregation Dor Tikvah meets.

“We set up a table with eight places around it, and Bibles at each place,” Davies said. “We also put a Bible on a podium facing the table.” A card on the table read: “In Memoriam: A Tribute to the Nine Whose Voices of Study Were Silenced.”

The memorial tribute table remained in place through the following weekend, Davies said, and then was removed to make room for day camp events at the JCC.

“Though we were heading into Shabbat, that Friday [June 26] I also attended the funeral for Pastor [Clementa] Pinckney,” Davies said. At the service, held at the College of Charleston arena, a block away from Pinckney’s church, “12,000 people went, and only 5,500 got in. I did not get in, but I was there, and it was a beautiful thing, just tremendous, to see all the people from all over the country.”

Davies said he knew Pinckney only by reputation, a “second-degree” connection. “Charleston is a small community, and though I did not personally know any of those who died, a number of our congregants have relationships with individuals at Emanuel, either through work or their social life,” he said.

Meanwhile, board members at Dor Tikvah met to discuss how the congregation might be of service to Emanuel now. “We are looking at what next steps we can take, asking ourselves what we can do to show solidarity, pay our respects, now that the church is out of the international and national spotlight,” Davies said.

“The sense of unity is still so palpable in Charleston, and now this seems like more of a local issue,” he continued. “This is a time for us to ask Emanuel that as part of your community, part of your extended family here, what can we do to help, what are the needs that we can fill.”

Charleston is home to four Jewish congregations and a Chabad center, Davies said. He noted that other rabbinic leaders in town are seeking ways to help Emanuel, and the Jewish Community Relations Council also has reached out.

“The response to this terrible event was so strong and so powerful, the way the whole community united — it was amazing on so many levels,” Davies said. “Now we’re looking for ways to make more direct connections with Emanuel and to reach out to organizations here that are involved in community unification.”

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.