Big crowd at a vigil for Pittsburgh shooting victims the day after the attack (Photo/Maya Mirsky)
A vigil at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos for victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Oct. 28, 2018 (Photo/Maya Mirsky)

On first Shabbat since shooting, big crowds of Bay Area Jews and allies

They showed up.

In the wake of the murder of 11 Jews at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, a nationwide call went out last week to “Show up for Shabbat.” Around the Bay Area, sanctuaries were filled for Friday night and Saturday morning services, with many non-Jews standing shoulder to shoulder with their grieving Jewish neighbors.

Sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and Jewish Federations of North America, the #ShowUpForShabbat campaign (and a parallel project, Solidarity Shabbat) sought to pack services around the world last weekend in solidarity with the Jewish community in Pittsburgh and beyond.

At Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, approximately 350 people crowded into the sanctuary for Saturday morning’s Torah service, twice the normal turnout, according to Rabbi Chai Levy. Every seat was filled, except for 11 empty chairs, each draped with the name of a victim from the Tree of Life synagogue.

So many people showed up to the Conservative synagogue, in fact, that every siddur on the racks was taken. Lay leaders located an unopened box of prayerbooks in a back office, cracked it open and handed out the extra copies.

Levy welcomed the many friends and allies in attendance, including from nearby Christian churches and a Sikh temple. Three staff members from Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee’s office were on hand, with one reading a prayer from the bimah.

In a drash (sermon) on the weekly Torah portion Chayei Sarah, congregant Renee Rubin Ross said, “Our job today, our affirming of [the biblical matriarch] Sarah’s life and the lives of those who died last week in Pittsburgh, is not to hide, not to lock our doors in fear, not to give up, not to bury our heads in the sand, but to study Torah and build a wide community around us.”

In San Francisco, a crowd of 400 showed up for Friday night services at The Kitchen, an independent synagogue that meets in the Mission District — so many that an adjoining room had to be opened up to accommodate everyone.

Remembering the victims in Pittsburgh, Rabbi Noa Kushner said, “Their prayers were interrupted last week. We’re here this Shabbat to complete those prayers.”

Among the visitors were 75 people from Glide Memorial Church, including Rev. Cecil Williams, its legendary pastor emeritus. Rabbi Michael Lezak, Kushner’s husband, works at Glide’s social justice organization.

“I am afraid that we will start to claim our victim status with too much attachment,” Kushner said in her sermon. “I am worried that in America today it is easier for us to stay Jewish victims than to try and figure out how to be Jewish heroes, than to try and figure out how to serve our God and make Torah live in the streets.”

There were signs held aloft outside Congregation Beth El in Berkeley on Saturday as services began: signs of support. “We had two different local churches show up with banners,” said Rabbi Yoel Kahn.

The Reform synagogue had members and interfaith visitors heeding the call to show up for Shabbat at both a Friday night dinner, with around 250 people attending, and Saturday morning services, which drew more than 300, Kahn estimated. The solidarity from the community made an impact.

“I’d say there’s shock, there’s grief, and there also is a certain sense of gratitude,” he said.

Among congregants there was also a feeling of insecurity, with some asking what Kahn called “legitimate questions about physical safety.”

Their prayers were interrupted last week. We’re here this Shabbat to complete those prayers.

“What we’ve learned is there is no place that is truly safe,” he said.

But Kahn said it was also important to put the act of terror into context; that anti-Semitism may be becoming more normalized but is not yet mainstream. “This isn’t the reenactment of Jewish history,” he said.

At Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City, Rabbi Corey Helfand delivered a Saturday morning drash on the Torah portion in the crowded sanctuary. He mentioned that during a press interview in the wake of the Pittsburgh shootings, a reporter asked whether he was surprised by the attack.

“My answer was a quick, unequivocal no,” Helfand said. “I’m not shocked. Anti-Semitism is alive and well. It may lay dormant for periods of time, but you can be sure that it will rear its ugly head again soon.”

Referencing the Nov. 6 election, he added, “Let us cast our vote for reimagining our relationships with one another. Relationships not of divisiveness and derision, rather of love and responsibility.”

At Shabbat services at the Berkeley Orthodox shul Congregation Beth Israel, Rabbi Yonatan Cohen led Av HaRachamim, a prayer said in memory of Jewish martyrs. More than 300 people attended, including visitors from nearby churches.

CBI members with connections to Pittsburgh rose to read the names of the dead from the Tree of Life massacre.

In his drash, Cohen urged that “we speak up against the inflammatory and divisive rhetoric that currently reigns in this country. It means that we err on the side of sounding political, as well as err on the side of disturbing the peace and harmony of our own communities’ unity, and challenge the president’s willingness to stoke the flames of hatred for the sake of political gain, his dangerous ongoing flirtation with anti-Semitic groups and his use of hateful code words, such as ‘globalists,’ which we know means Jews.”

Rabbi Jonathan Singer of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El estimates 1,000 people showed up for Friday night services, including a large non-Jewish contingent, the consul general of Japan and members of Grace Cathedral Episcopal Church.

“We were so touched by the turnout,” Singer said, “not only of our own membership but people in the neighborhood, people who wanted to show support for the Jewish community. Every house of worship matters.”

Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek chose her words carefully in addressing the Pittsburgh tragedy when her congregation showed up for the family-oriented Friday night service.

With children present, she planned to frame her remarks around stories that adults would understand, but that would still be safe for children.

She told J. her Reform synagogue joined #ShowUpForShabbat after a community member talked to her about it. “I felt that the answer had to be yes,” she said.

Gutterman hoped it would help her community, which she said was “sad and sobered” by the Pittsburgh shooting. “One of the things that came out of this is Jews not wanting to feel so alone,” she said.

At San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel, Anti-Defamation League regional director Seth Brysk delivered a d’var Torah to a full house at Friday night services. Reflecting on the unspeakable violence and hatred on display in Pittsburgh, he said, “Even though Jews have known hate throughout their history, this is a terrible reminder that anti-Semitism is not a thing of the past. It’s thriving and growing in the United States. We tracked a 57 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents last year, on top of 34 percent in the prior year.”

Brysk also spoke to the Jewish values around immigration, noting that the commandment to welcome the stranger appears 36 times in the Torah.

“A double chai,” he said.

Union for Reform Judaism chair Daryl Messinger delivered a Friday night drash on the Torah portion at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. More than 500 people attended, including a large interfaith contingent.

“The outpouring of love, concern and solidarity is staggering,” Messinger said. “Last night after returning from Israel, I had a chance to watch the video archive of the vigil that took place here Sunday that drew more than 1,000 people. I was uplifted by the extraordinary expressions of support and unity. We must delegitimize anti-Semitism, white supremacy and bigotry whenever we hear or see it.”

At Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond, as many as 80 people came for Shabbat dinner and Friday night services, far more than normal, according to congregant Maggie Jacobs.

Attendees included people of other faiths, including the pastor of a Chinese Christian congregation that holds services in the Beth Hillel building.

Rabbi Dean Kertesz acknowledged that just a few days before hate crimes took the lives of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh, it also claimed two African Americans who were killed in Kentucky. “My daughter lit 13 yahrzeit candles tonight: 11 for the Jews and two for the black victims of blind hate in Louisville,” he said. “It is easy to feel isolated and afraid at times like this. Instead, when we are all together, we can hold each other.”

Kertesz added, “We call our Torah the Tree of Life. We choose life. We do not cower. We come together and continue with our lives. So let us go out into the world to finish God’s work, so that we can truly say, ‘May their memories be a blessing.’ ”

J. staff writers and editors Maya Mirsky, David A.M. Wilensky and Laura Paull contributed to this report.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.