On Oct. 27, 2018, a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh while Shabbat services were underway. He murdered eleven worshippers and wounded six more. It was the deadliest act of anti-Semitism in United States history.
Six days later, Lebanon’s Beth Israel synagogue opened its doors to the public for a memorial Shabbat. The response was overwhelming. A diverse throng of 400 believers and non-believers packed the service in a show of support for their Jewish friends and neighbors.
The gesture was not forgotten by Rabbi Sam Yolen and his congregation.
“Last year, after the most devastating synagogue shooting in American history, the Town of Lebanon came out in support of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Yolen in a public letter last month. “Our community was so moved by the outpouring of support, we would like more than anything to thank the town by inviting you back.”
So, on Friday night, Rabbi Yolen and his congregation again opened their doors for an interfaith service remembering the Pittsburgh massacre and the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, generally considered to be the start of the Holocaust.
Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, occurred on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938. Jewish businesses, synagogues, homes, and schools throughout Germany, Austria, and occupied parts of what is now the Czech Republic were ransacked by mobs while Nazi authorities stood by and watched. Over the two nights, hundreds of Jews were beaten, killed, and sent to concentration camps.
Pastor Tom Maiello of StoneRidge Retirement Living Communities read from Ernest Michel’s firsthand account of Kristallnacht in his book Promises to Keep:
“The entire building was engulfed. The brownshirts of the SA had taken out the prayer books, the prayer shawls, everything they could get their hands on. They’d dumped them in a pile on the street and, laughing boisterously, were trampling on them, enjoying themselves. . . . Within a few minutes, fire engines arrived to protect the neighboring buildings. They made no effort to save the synagogue.”
While dark days, recent and remote, were understandably on the minds of all those present, the evening’s focus was on the common bonds that unite humans of all cultures and backgrounds, and the need to care for one’s brothers and sisters.
Past congregation president Stu Perlmutter noted that Jews have worshipped in Lebanon County, starting in Schaefferstown, since 1788, and during most of their presence anti-Semitism was more overt, while anti-discrimination laws were non-existent.
Beth Israel was formed in 1907 and Perlmutter told the audience “[i]t is due to the kindness and tolerance of our Lebanon Christian and other faith neighbors in a time in which this overt religious prejudice was flourishing that allowed our community to begin, survive and grow these 112 years.”
Rabbi Yolen observed that while “our Jewish chronicle of pain and suffering is so replete with decimation, . . . the real message tonight is not just our particularity, but our universalism – our answering the question of how we share in the burden of protecting those most vulnerable in our twenty-first century society.”
Clergy from local Christian, Muslim, and Hindu communities offered prayers and remarks from their own faith experience, each emphasizing the particularity and universality in all faiths.
Lebanon Valley College Associate Professor of Religion Matthew Sayers echoed the idea from an atheist’s perspective: “Pluralism is creating a space in which we can cooperate across difference while remaining true to who we are and enable others to be true to who they are too.”
The service closed with all present singing Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World.
Beth Israel’s directors have approved the creation of a memorial plaque to be permanently displayed in the synagogue’s lobby.
The plaque will feature the front page of the program from last year’s service, which listed the eleven people killed at the Tree of Life synagogue, and the eleven local ministers, chaplains, representatives, and pastors who lit candles in their memory.
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