It was a horrible 20 minutes.
On Saturday morning, Rabbi Avi Zwiebel was celebrating his usual Shabbat service at Chabad Synagogue on Siskiyou Boulevard in Ashland. As part of tradition, no one carries phones on that day. But a parishioner came in late and broke the news about an active shooter at a synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
“I was filled with fear such as I’ve never known,” said Zwiebel, whose daughter Baila, 16, was working in a synagogue in that neighborhood. He did not rush to a screen to keep up on the increasingly horrid news, but, he says, “I really started praying that my daughter was safe. We continued the service and dedicated it to all the dead who needed our prayers.”
Some minutes later, another congregant came in, relating that the tragedy happened at the Tree of Life Synagogue, not the one where his daughter worked.
“Of course, it was a relief, but even to this moment, it’s an open wound. It could have been me,” he said Monday. “Everyone was very shaken up.”
The Shabbat became a very different kind of service, at odds with routine.
“It’s the usual time set aside to disconnect from the madness around us,” Zweibel said, “and be in the safe haven of the synagogue.”
The rabbi emphasized that these are not times for politics. “We always resolve to move forward from darkness into light. We counter a senseless act of hate with random acts of kindness. It’s all about focusing on the positive and adding more light to the world, doing 11 random acts of kindness (for each of the 11 victims of the crime)."
In an internet message just hours later, Zwiebel posted, “I am deeply thankful my daughter is safe, but the pain remains, as we have lost so many brothers and sisters. This truly hit home and is completely devastating. There are no words for our pain for the people who have lost their lives today, for being a Jew and praying in synagogue.”
In a message to his congregation Monday, Zwiebel noted, “Our hearts are shattered by the heinous and horrific attack … We mourn the 11 holy souls who were so cruelly torn from our midst … No words can possibly describe this pure evil. Jews who gathered to pray and celebrate Shabbat were killed for no reason other than the fact that they were Jewish. Again: While praying! On Shabbat! The killer’s bullets were aimed at us all. ‘All Jews must die,’ he yelled while opening fire.”
To counter the act, Zwiebel suggested increased unity and love among Jews, reaching out to those we’ve disagreed with and grown apart from, show Jewish pride, wear kippas proudly, light another mitzvah (sacred candle) for victims and come to synagogue and “show the world it’s filled with vibrancy, love and life.”
Rabbi Julie Benioff of Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland said her congregation is “in a lot of pain right now for this anti-Semitic hate crime and absolute tragedy.
They plan a healing and memorial service Saturday evening, “where we can come together in prayer and share our grief and hold on to each other in strength, solidarity and love for all people in our country and world who fall victim to hate crimes."
While she believes in Psalm 89’s vision of building a world of love, she says, it’s also a time to acknowledge a sharp increase in anti-Semitism and hate crime in recent years in the U.S.
Benioff said she was not aware of any recent hate crimes against synagogue members in Ashland but did note “some anti-Semitic acts and rhetoric in the community … in emails and people speaking out at public events,” but not directly threatening.
“I want to uplift my belief in love and community and the good of people,” she said. “Love is greater than hate. … This is a time when we really need each other, people of all ethnicities, cultures and religions to uplift each other and be a loving community — and I really feel that in Ashland and am really grateful for it.”
Rabbi David Zaslow of Temple Emek Shalom, which held a memorial Saturday, said attendees raised an “astounding” $1,000 for families of the slain.
“It evokes an enormous amount of trauma of the Jewish people to be attacked like this,” he said Monday. “We feel so blessed to be insulated in Southern Oregon, but the lesson is, never be silent when we hear anti-Semitic, homophobic, Islamophobic, misogynist or racist speech. Stand up immediately against it.
“The rage that comes up in us is enormous but it doesn’t mean we should be quiet. … My congregation is scared and angry today and we’re taking even more security, arranging for special training with the Ashland police to get in the building. … This is crazy but we have to do it. We can’t be naive.”
Zaslow said the uptick in fear is not “caused by the current administration, but the language of the current administration absolutely contributed to the rise in anti-Semitism, xenophobia, the fear of the outsider.”
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.