Spiritually gut-wrenching and emotional.”
These were the words of Jeffrey Newman, president of Temple Shalom in Succasunna, after his congregation visited the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were massacred during Shabbat morning services on Oct. 27.
“It’s one thing to read about these disasters,” he said. “It’s another to visit and see the shattered doors of the Tree of Life congregation, see the memorial set up in the window casings, and the showering of love and support” from the broader community.
That includes Newman’s small Reform congregation, which has been making an outsized effort to show solidarity and offer comfort to the Conservative congregation in Pittsburgh,
In addition to erecting a Tree of Life memorial in their sanctuary and lobbying for mandated Holocaust curriculum nationally in schools, at the invitation of the resilient synagogue, a group of about 20 Temple Shalom members spent the Shabbat before Passover, April 12-13, in Pittsburgh. Temple Shalom is the third congregation in the country to officially visit Tree of Life, although the community has welcomed individual visitors from congregations all over the world in the months since the shooting.
“We are appreciative of the love and comfort that they bring,” Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers told NJJN via email.
For now, the Tree of Life members have been meeting at nearby Rodef Shalom Congregation, so on their way to services Shabbat morning, the visitors from Temple Shalom stopped at the site of the attack and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish. Seeing the exterior of the synagogue, decorated with memorial items such as painted stones, candles, flowers, and wooden stars of David with the victims’ names, brought home how 11 Jews were murdered and several more injured in a house of worship.
At Rodef Shalom, “I spent the first 45 minutes of the service with the prayer book open just imagining what it must have been like,” said Howie Goodkin, a past president of Temple Shalom who organized the visit.
Describing Myers as “warm and wonderful,” Goodkin added, “I don’t even know how he could stand there and focus on what he was doing with what he experienced six months ago.”
When it came time to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish with those who were praying at Tree of Life on Oct. 27, “A chill went down my spine as they read each of the 11 names,” Goodkin said. “The people in Pittsburgh must be used to it but for us it was very sobering.”
For those two days in April, Temple Shalom and Tree of Life congregants prayed, chatted, and enjoyed the kiddush together, and the visitors presented their hosts with a wall-hanging.
Rabbi Inna Serebro-Litvak of Temple Shalom compared the experience of speaking with the surviving members of the community to the High Holiday prayer “Unetaneh Tokef,” which asks, “Who shall live and who shall die?” An older woman who was sitting in front of her during services told her, “I should have been at services [that day]. I’m always there,” Serebro-Litvak recalled. However, the woman told her, “I broke my wrist and so I didn’t go. My girlfriend was shot. See that guy walking with the Torah? It was his mom.”
Goodkin spoke with Alan Mallinger, who was seated behind him. Mallinger’s mother, Rose, a 97-year-old Holocaust survivor, was murdered. “Did you know my sister was shot that day, too?” Goodkin remembers him asking. “They were doing a baby naming that day and there were eight people in the back row [with her]. Seven of them were murdered.” Mallinger’s sister was the only one in the row who survived.
Newman likened the visit to making a shiva call to someone you don’t know too well. “You go to show solidarity,” he said. “There no real tangible thing we were after — just to connect and let them know we were thinking about them.”
Goodkin coordinated the synagogue’s actions in the aftermath of the October shooting. “We’re becoming so numb to what’s happening in our society today,” he said. “We kind of expect when we turn on the TV to see another shooting.”
He said he couldn’t sit around and watch the news any longer, so he wrote a letter to the members of Tree of Life expressing the congregation’s condolences and support to let them know that they weren’t alone, which led to the invitation.
“All Israel is responsible for one another,” he said, quoting the Talmud, adding, “What are we doing about it?”
In addition to the visit and the physical memorial, members of Temple Shalom have reached out to their local congressional representatives, Mikie Sherrill (D-Dist. 11) and Tom Malinowski (D-Dist. 7), to advocate for nationally mandated Holocaust education, already a requirement in New Jersey.
Serebro-Litvak has undertaken several outreach efforts, from speaking about the Pittsburgh experience and anti-Semitism at an interfaith clergy meeting, to attending iftar, a break-fast during Ramadan, at the nearby Islamic Center of Rockaway.
“At least partially, anti-Semitism and hatred comes from not knowing who your neighbor is,” she said, and encouraged other groups to visit the Tree of Life community as well. “It’s a site of a disaster, destruction, hate, and love at the same time.”
She added, “Like everything else, until you touch it, experience it, it’s not the same as when you just talk about it.”
The Succasunna visitors returned with a strong message from Myers, who now considers “hate” a four-letter word and refuses to use it. Instead, he told NJJN: “We must all work diligently to tone down H speech, to revive civil discourse in the United States.”