Atlanta Jews Grieve with Local Community of All Faiths

Atlanta Jews Grieve with Local Community of All Faiths

Vigils and memorial services filled sanctuaries, some beyond capacity, and welcomed people of all faiths.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

  • Services at The Temple's vigil last Tuesday.
    Services at The Temple's vigil last Tuesday.

By week’s end, perhaps the entirety of Atlanta’s Jewish community had recited Kaddish for the 11 Jews murdered Oct. 27 during their Shabbat morning prayers at the Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Vigils and memorial services filled sanctuaries, some beyond capacity, the overflow spilling into hallways and even out the doors.

Yahrzeit candles were kindled, one for each of the eight men and three women, ages 54 to 97, whose alleged executioner continued yelling about killing Jews even as he was wheeled into a hospital, where Jewish doctors and nurses were among those treating his wounds from police gunfire.

Rabbis shared their pulpits with clergy from other faiths, and significant numbers of people from the greater community turned out, in an appreciated demonstration of support for the Jewish community.

In mourning, divisions between the various movements of American Judaism were put aside.

Federation CEO and President Eric Robbins is from Pittsburgh, Penn.

Atlantans who grew up in Pittsburgh talked with affection about its Jewish community, the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, and Tree of Life.

On that fateful morning, Shabbat services in Atlanta differed little from those underway at the three congregations that worshiped inside Tree of Life.

That first report from Pittsburgh was a punch in the gut felt by Jews throughout the United States, in Israel and elsewhere around the world.

At Congregation Or Hadash in Sandy Springs, the news was delivered by congregation president Ben Nadler, speaking from the bimah at the end of the morning service.

Two days later at Or Hadash, a large yahrzeit candle was lit. One by one, former residents of Pittsburgh lit smaller candles for 10 of the victims. The last candle was lit by congregants steadfast in their Shabbat attendance, the ones who come early to set up and make a minyan – as were those killed at Tree of Life.

Amid tears and hugs, the service concluded with the singing of “America the Beautiful.”

The pews of The Temple filled at mid-day Tuesday, as Rabbi Peter Berg led an interfaith program that included remarks by Christian and Muslim clergy, as well as Atlanta’s mayor and police chief.

Services at The Temple’s vigil last Tuesday.

As he had throughout the week, Berg asked aloud, “If we can’t be Jewish in our synagogues, where in the world can we be Jewish?”

He also decried the ease of access to guns.

“Now, some will say, ‘But rabbi, you’re being political. Please don’t talk about politics.’ Nonsense, this is about life and death,” Berg said, to standing applause from the assembly.

The accused Pittsburgh gunman, Robert Bowers, who now faces a 44-count federal indictment, used social media to express his anger over the supposed Jewish support for resettling refugees in the United States.

Dr. Heval Kelli, a Syrian refugee, who in a decade’s time went from washing dishes at a restaurant near Emory University to being a cardiologist in its hospital, reached out to Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim after the massacre.

“I’m reading echoes and EKGs and I’m trying to think about, can I see the heart as Jewish or Muslim, or black and white? And love is blind, but at the same time, hate also is blind. It doesn’t discriminate, no matter if you’re rich or poor. Hate does not see that, and I think we see that more and more often in this country,” Kelli said Tuesday night at Bet Haverim.

When the next Shabbat began at sunset on Nov. 2, attendance at services Friday night and Saturday swelled as Jews heeded calls to #ShowUpForShabbat to again say Kaddish and to defy the anti-Semitism that lay behind the tragedy.

Police blocked off an intersection between Young Israel of Toco Hills (modern Orthodox) and Bet Haverim (Reconstructionist) early Saturday afternoon as the congregations met in the street for prayers, psalms, singing, and remarks by Lesser and YITH’s Rabbi Adam Starr.

Outside of Marietta’s Congregation Etz Chaim (which means “tree of life” in Hebrew), members of the nearby Catholic Church of St. Ann set up 11 empty chairs, each bearing the name of a victim in Pittsburgh, and a rose. Etz Chaim added a yahrzeit candle on each chair.

Chairs representing the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting were placed in a circle outside Congregation Etz Chaim, each with stones and flowers in memory of those slain.

On Shabbat morning, Etz Chaim opened up extra space to accommodate congregants and visitors. In demonstration of interfaith support, Rabbi Daniel Dorsch welcomed to the pulpit Father Ray Cadran of St. Ann; Pastor Uijin Hwang of the neighboring Lutheran Church of the Incarnation; Kuldip Singh of the Sikh Study Circle; and Kemal Budak of the Islamic Center of North Fulton.

Among the non-Jewish Shabbat visitors at Temple Kehillat Chaim in Roswell was Lisa Guthrie, a Catholic, who attended the Friday night service with her husband and son.

“The congregation was just like us, practicing their faith devoutly and passing that example to their children,” said Guthrie, who attends St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church.

After the service, her family was invited back into the sanctuary, where Rabbi Jason Holtz, whose official installation at Kehillat Chaim is Nov. 8, showed them Torah scrolls dating back two to three centuries.

“It felt like shared history,” Guthrie said.

Temple Sinai hosted an emotional vigil on Oct. 28 with music to mark the occasion.

One of the most inspiring acts of the week came from 4-year-old Georgia Weeks, the granddaughter of Rabbi Mark Zimmerman of Temple Beth Shalom in Dunwoody.

The child had sensed the sadness of the adults around her.

On Monday night, while Zimmerman led a vigil at Beth Shalom, a tearful Georgia was at home with her mother. Ilana Weeks traced 11 hearts on construction paper and “Jo-Jo” cut them out, placed them in an envelope, and went with her mother to Beth Shalom.

“While her saba spoke about each person that lost their life and candles were lit for them, she proudly walked around the back of the sanctuary and handed out 11 small construction paper hearts to complete strangers. With a huge smile on her face she paraded her empty envelope back over to me and said, ‘I told everybody how much I care about them,’” Weeks wrote on Facebook.

Jan Jaben-Eilon and Roni Robbins also contributed to this report.

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