The previous Shabbat Benjamin Epstein celebrated his bar mitzvah at Temple B’nai Abraham (TBA) in Livingston. On Sunday, Oct. 28, he returned to the same sanctuary for a community gathering organized by Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ in the aftermath of Saturday’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 congregants dead and six others wounded, including four police officers.
Caryn Epstein, Benjamin’s mom, echoed the sentiments of many of the 1,000 people in attendance when she said the attack hits “very close to home,” as worshippers in Pennsylvania were gunned down during Shabbat morning services by a rabid anti-Semite with an AR-15-style assault rifle.
Said Jessica Gantman of Livingston, while bouncing her 4-month-old daughter, Joey, in her arms, “It hits very close to home, I grew up going to shul.” Gantman regularly attended Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield.
About the program hosted at TBA, she said, “It’s important to be a community and be with other people who feel the same way.”
Throughout the state, people of all faiths have gathered this week to mourn, share collective grief, and build feelings of strength and unity in the face of visceral hatred. In some cases, outrage at Robert Bowers, the alleged Pittsburgh shooter, was coupled with condemnation of the rhetoric and policies of President Donald Trump.
Sunday’s program was not immune to finger-pointing at the White House — some of it thinly veiled, such as comments by Gov. Phil Murphy, who said, “We must challenge hate wherever it’s spoken even if by the highest powers in this country.”
And others overt. Rabbi Clifford Kulwin, spiritual leader of TBA, blamed Trump for breeding Saturday’s violence and for creating an atmosphere that foments the increase in anti-Semitic and bias incidents. “There is no coincidence,” Kulwin said in his sharply delivered remarks.
Bowers, Kulwin said, “acted with the confidence of someone who knew they were part of something bigger than themselves. In the current environment, it is easy to imagine how that confidence came to be.”
Murphy was one of four speakers in a program that lasted about an hour. During his remarks, he mentioned the possibility of more gun control laws in the state, which received a long round of applause.
“We must ensure that no one who harbors the desire to inflict harm and terror on our communities has access to guns,” Murphy said. “We’re already looking at potentially more laws to make what is already the safest gun safety state in America even safer.”
As a former ambassador to Germany and student of history, he said he was disturbed by the rise of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and how it’s mirroring European history.
“We cannot ignore the uncomfortable fact that anti-Semitism is on the rise not just in Europe, but also in this nation,” he said in reference to anti-Semitic slurs and symbols spray-painted over the last 18 months on buildings in New Jersey.
“No act of hate will go unpunished,” he said, reminding the Jewish community to “not be afraid,” that “we come together and rise and fall as one.”
“New Jersey’s Jewish community is inextricably woven into the fabric of our state,” he said. “I commit to you now with a heavy, yet firm heart that this fabric will never be rendered.”
Elected and appointed officials from municipal governments, Essex County, and the state filled at least three pews of the sanctuary. They included the Mayor of Livingston Edward Meinhardt, Mayor of West Orange Robert Parisi, former Gov. Richard Codey, Assembly Member John F. McKeon, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo Jr., Essex County Freeholder President Brendan Gill, and many more.
Sitting among them were candidates on next week’s ballots, including Rep. Leonard Lance, Tom Malinowski, Mikie Sherrill, and Jay Webber.
Addressing the governmental representatives, Kulwin issued a stern reprimand, “You are the ones who can actually do something. So here’s a very simple message: Do it.”
He quoted Leviticus 19:16. “‘Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.’ We are bleeding. What will you do to staunch the flow?”
The other speakers at the vigil were Mark Wilf of Livingston, newly installed chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), and Dov Ben-Shimon, executive vice president and CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
“No amount of hate or violence will deter us from the covenantal mission of Abraham and Sarah to be a unified nation of tzedakah and chesed — a people of kindness and goodness,” Wilf said.
Ben-Shimon said he spoke “as a worried father and as a troubled member of the community,” and reiterated federation’s commitment to keeping the Jewish community safe through such examples as “deepening” emergency communications to alert the community of threats; coordinating with state, federal, and local police; and lobbying for state and federal security funds.
“Strong, resilient communities don’t give up in the face of hate and terror,” he said, urging more community building, good deeds, and tikkun olam.
Following recitation of Psalm 121, and TBA Cantor Jessica Epstein singing the “Keil Maleh Rachamim,” a prayer for the souls of the departed, Ben-Shimon read the names and ages of the 11 victims. As the victims had only been identified that morning, many in the audience were hearing the names for the first time and there were audible gasps when Ben-Shimon announced Rose Mallinger’s age — 97 — and at the mention of David Rosenthal and Cecil Rosenthal, brothers who were gunned down in the massacre.
The program concluded with a collective Mourner’s Kaddish, the singing of “Hatikvah,” and Kulwin’s blessing of “a day of peace and a day of safety to all.”