two men light candles in the middle of a packed sanctuary
Alan Hakimi (left) and Daryoush Davidi light candles in the middle of a packed Kol Shofar sanctuary. HIAS helped resettle Davidi from Iran and Hakimi's mother from Egypt. HIAS was cited by the alleged shooter in Pittsburgh. (Photo/Dan Pine)

At Bay Area vigils, a show of solidarity

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On Sunday, Oct. 28, Jews and their allies gathered in synagogues throughout the Bay Area to remember the Jews murdered in Saturday’s anti-Semitic shooting at Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh. Jewish leaders and community members were joined by civic and religious leaders, from the mayor of San Francisco to Christian and Muslim clergy. There were condemnations, memories, tears — and determination.

J. staff members fanned out to attend several of these moving memorial events. Here’s what we saw:

Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco: Civic leaders and a gun violence survivor
Sue Barnett, J. senior editor

“My name is Mindy Finkelstein. I am a gun violence survivor, a mass shooting survivor and a hate crime survivor.”

So started a moving, devastating account of a shooting at a Los Angeles JCC in 1999, when a neo-Nazi burst into a building full of children and began firing.

“I was 16 years old,” Finkelstein recalled. “Today I’m 35, and yet days like yesterday make me feel like I’m 16 again, lying in a pool of my own blood, crying out for my parents.”

a woman weeps at the podium of a large, ornate sanctuary
1999 Los Angeles JCC mass shooting survivor Mindy Finklestein weeps as she tells her story at Emanu-El. (Photo/Sue Barnett)

Finkelstein shared her riveting story at an interfaith vigil at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco at noon Sunday, attended by a rainbow of faith and community leaders and hundreds of people who had lined up around the block to be together in solidarity with the Bay Area Jewish community after the horrific Pittsburgh synagogue shootings the day before.

“Shalom, salaam alaikum,” began Fatih Ates of the interfaith Pacifica Institute, greeting the crowd in Hebrew and Arabic. “Through friendship comes great comfort,” he said. “We are your Muslim brothers and sisters. This is how we will heal, by being there for one another and standing for one another.”

Leaders from the Catholic, Baptist, Muslim and Buddhist communities filled the pulpit, alongside San Francisco Mayor London Breed; former state Sen. Mark Leno; Michael Pappas and Rita Semel from the S.F. Interfaith Council; and leaders of Jewish organizations including the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Community Relations Council, S.F.-based Federation, the Israel Consulate and JCCSF.

“Violence against Jews doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is only made possible by the slow, insidious normalization of anti-Semitism,” said regional ADL director Seth Brysk. That’s what makes standing in solidarity against bigotry so important, he said, adding, “When hatred targets Jews, it targets men, women, Muslims, Christians, LGBTQ, African Americans, Latinos … it targets all of us. It never stops with one group.”

Breed, elected mayor in June, spoke to the gun violence she experienced growing up in San Francisco. “The devastation is not only the loss of life, but the loss of people’s spirits,” she said. “Whether at a synagogue in Pittsburgh or a church in Charleston, these acts are not just about taking human life, they are about attacking our faith. … When we come together, when we support each other, when we love each other, when we have faith, we are stronger, we are better.”

That message was echoed by Finkelstein, who wept as she spoke and brought many to tears as she recounted how the Jewish community helped her through her own trauma. “Judaism is not just a set of beliefs, it’s not just a culture, it is a community. No matter where you are in the world, having a Jewish community and identifying as Jewish in whatever way that means to you connects us all. It makes you stronger, it makes your voice louder,” she said.

“And lastly — I’m an American. And I’m a voter.”

Congregation Beth Am, Los Altos Hills: Overflowing with people, and grief
Maya Mirsky, J. staff writer

The sanctuary was full — more than full — at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills on Sunday evening. By 7 p.m., hundreds of people filled up the side aisle and spilled into the next room, squeezing to make space for each other as best they could.

“It is heartening and comforting to know that we are not alone in our grief,” said Rabbi Janet Marder in her opening remarks.

Rabbis from Beth Am, along with Redwood City’s Congregation Beth Jacob and Palo Alto’s Congregation Kol Emeth, were joined by representatives of the local Muslim, Hindu and Christian communities, as well as local political and community leaders, to share words of support for a community reeling from the shock of violence.

“There is no question of the tremendous need, as we see how full this room is,” said Kol Emeth’s Rabbi David Booth.

a long line of people singing
Rabbis, cantors and Christian, Muslim and Hindu community representatives came together in song at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. (Photo/Maya Mirsky)

Rabbi Sarah Graf, also of Kol Emeth, said she was getting ready to go to Shabbat morning services when she heard about the Pittsburgh tragedy.

“My 10-year-old daughter, who was set to go with me, said she didn’t want to go, because she was scared,” Graf said.

But countering that fear with solidarity and hope was the message she gave both her daughter and the crowd at Beth Am.

“I said to my daughter, it’s on days like this we have to remind ourselves how much our people have been through,” Graf said. “How we have survived.”

As the evening progressed, interspersed with song and prayer, the mood changed from solemn and sorrowful to calls to action — political action, community action, moral action — to stand against those who act on hatred.

“They will never win,” said Athar Siddiqee, former president of the South Bay Islamic Association. “They will only increase our solidarity.”

Rev. Terry Gleeson of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Palo Alto reminded the audience that the anti-Semitic rantings of people like the man who took 11 lives in Pittsburgh often included the idea that Jews were “helping migrants.” But, he said, that was one idea the community shouldn’t repudiate.

“What a glorious reputation,” he said with a smile.

Congregation Kol Shofar, Tiburon: Standing up for Pittsburgh
Dan Pine, J. news editor

The hundreds of mourners who gathered in the sanctuary of Tiburon’s Congregation Kol Shofar held aloft their phones, each screen depicting a flickering candle flame.

It was a fire-safe way to show unity with a Jewish community in shock following the massacre of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue the day before.

Sponsored by Kol Shofar and the Marin Interfaith Council, the vigil drew a standing-room-only crowd of North Bay Jews as well as scores of supporters from other faith communities.

“It feels so important that you all showed up here in solidarity with the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Elena Rosen Brown of San Rafael’s Congregation Rodef Sholom in her welcoming remarks.

Early in the service, Kol Shofar Rabbi Susan Leider asked attendees from each institution to stand and announce their affiliation.

In addition to Jewish institutions such as Brandeis Marin day school, Rodef Sholom and the American Jewish Committee, there were representatives from the Islamic Center of Mill Valley, Mt. Tamalpais Methodist Church, First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of San Rafael, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church of Larkspur and many more.

In a dramatic, physical demonstration of support, each group stood one at a time and remained standing. By the end, everyone in the sanctuary was on their feet.

More than a dozen speakers took to the bimah to express their sorrow and solidarity with the Jewish community.

a black man stands at a podium giving a speech
Rev. Floyd Thompkins of San Francisco Theological Seminary speaking at Kol Shofar in Tiburon (Photo/Dan Pine)

Scott Quinn of the Marin Interfaith Council recounted a theme oft repeated in the Jewish and Christian traditions: Do not allow fear to overcome you.

“There are reasons to be afraid,” he said. “But we do not have to succumb to fear. Tonight is about a bold statement of love. Look around this room. Here you see love alive.”

Khadija Hansia of the Islamic Center greeted the crowd with “salaam alaikum,” adding, “We stand together against hate, against violence — because we are stronger together.”

Linda Cutts of the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center led the congregation in a guided meditation, then recounted the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”

Rev. Floyd Thompkins of the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo received a standing ovation for his speech. “There is a power in worshippers,” he said. “Evil has a right to be scared of us. One man thought he extinguished 11 lives, but he created an army of love in Marin.”

In closing the event, Leider noted she came dressed in tennis shoes, leaving behind accessories such as her earrings.

“Today reminds me of Tisha B’Av,” she said, referring to the day on the Jewish calendar that commemorates the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 423 BCE, and other tragedies in Jewish history.

“It is a collective day of mourning,” she added in a choked voice, “a day of fasting, of not adorning. It is as if today is Tisha B’Av in so many ways.”

Or Shalom Jewish Community, San Francisco: Speaking with grief, anger and ometz — courage
David A.M. Wilensky, J. online editor

Police cars were stationed outside Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco ahead of a Sunday night memorial service-turned-support group.

With about 70 congregants and supporters in attendance at the Reconstructionist shul, the gathering had to move into the main sanctuary from the smaller room it was planned for. The same thing happened the last time there was a similar gathering there — two years ago, following the election of President Donald Trump, said the congregation’s leader, Rabbi Katie Mizrahi.

As attendees filed in, a cellist and clarinetist played mournful music.

The first half of the gathering was a memorial service, led by Mizrahi.

“The words of Pastor Martin Niemöller keep coming to me these past two years,” she said, referring to Niemöller’s famous poem, “First They Came….

“I don’t think this is 1930s Germany, but we have to make sure yesterday is as close as we get to 1930s Germany,” Mizrahi said before reading the poem.

She led the congregation in well-known songs like “Kol Haolam Kulo” — “The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the most important part is not to be afraid”; “Esa Einai” — “I lift my eyes to the mountains, where will my help come from?”; and “Eili, Eili” by the World War II Jewish partisan fighter Hannah Senesh.

After the memorial service, Mizrahi passed around a microphone to anyone who wanted to speak — along with a stone she bought in Jerusalem with the word ometz, Hebrew for courage, carved on it. After each speaker, the congregation responded “shamati,” or “I hear you.”

Said one man into the mic, “I wear multiple hats. I’m Mexican. I’m undocumented. My wife is Jewish. I have a lot of pain. I hope you know that I am with this community. I’ve lived through lots of hardships. I’m here with you.”

Another quoted a Yiddish protest song: “Mir veln zey iberlebn” — “We will outlive them.”

“HIAS helps refugees, and that really set off this guy,” he said, referring to the Pittsburgh shooter’s statement on social media blasting the Jewish refugee aid organization. “He wants to keep everyone in their place,” he said, and suggested donating to HIAS as a way to respond to the attack.

“I have a lot of anger, and a lot of it is toward fellow Jews, and I don’t know what to do with this anger,” said another speaker. “Jews who vote a certain way — Israel at all costs. I want to yell: ‘Was the embassy move worth it?’” she said.

“I want to thank the young man who said he is undocumented,” said the final speaker. “And I want to say: We’re with you too.”

To close the gathering, Mizrahi led the congregation in the Mourner’s Kaddish and the song “Olam Chesed Yibane” — “We will build this world from love.”