Rabbi Susan Grossman’s service was interrupted Saturday by police officers who came to Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia to inform her of a mass shooting that had just taken place in Pittsburgh.
The shooting during a service held by the Tree of Life Congregation killed 11 people.
Grossman knew something had to be done. Within 24 hours, she and 40 clergy members from various religions helped organize a vigil that took place Monday night at Beth Shalom.
More than 1,400 people attended, Howard County police said.
“We brought out every chair we own,” said Bernie Gabin, a member of the congregation who assisted with logistics. “Even the broken ones.”
They weren’t enough. The room, which on most days can hold 700 chairs, was packed to the max. People who could not find chairs stood in the back, listening while Grossman and other religious leaders read scripture, sang songs and celebrated the event’s diversity.
Among those fortunate enough to snag seats inside included Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, Howard County Public School Superintendent Michael Martirano and the Rev. Paige Getty, the co-chair of “People Acting Together in Howard.”
Getty said in an interview that she thought it was important to attend the event because those in the minority tend to find themselves threatened.
“Jews were targeted on Saturday. Queer partiers were targeted in Florida last year, and African-Americans are targeted all the time,” Getty said, adding that the high turnout is “a sign of the relationships we’ve built across faith traditions in Howard.”
Joanne Yocheved Heiligman was there, too. The retired rabbi, who did not learn of the incident until after sundown Saturday, grew up in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill and led services in the building where the deadly shooting occurred.
“The Jewish community [in Squirrel Hill] all get along. You have friends across denominational lines. One of us feels it, we all feel it,” Heiligman said, adding that the Howard event mirrored the unity she witnessed in Pittsburgh.
Those who could not find a place to stand inside the building Monday huddled in a circle in the parking lot alongside hundreds who read scripture and sang “This Little Light of Mine” while illuminating the darkness with tea light candles and cellphones. Among them were Howard County Councilman Calvin Ball and David Boder, Grossman’s husband, who said he pulled no favors to snag a seat inside.
“In a strange way, this is a wonderful day where we’re grieving together,” Boder said.
The Pittsburgh attack was the deadliest on Jews in United States history. Authorities allege that Robert Bowers opened fire on the congregation with an assault-style rifle and three handguns just before 10 a.m. Saturday. Bowers, a 46-year-old truck driver who on social media spewed anti-Semitic rhetoric, has accepted a public defender and is being held without bond.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday announced that some of the 29 charges could lead to the death penalty.
Bowers appears to have accused the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS, of assisting violent offenders who were among a group of asylum-seeking migrants walking from Honduras to the U.S. border. A Silver Spring based organization, HIAS works to provide aid to refugees globally.
Rabbi Josh Jacobs-Velde, who is a co-rabbi with his wife, Daria, at Oseh Shalom congregation in Laurel said Saturday’s massacre is “certainly a traumatic event for the entire American Jewish community. [It] touches all of us.”
Oseh Shalom congregation hosted several events in the past week to support HIAS’ efforts, according to Jacobs-Velde.
“For the vast majority of Oseh [Shalom], it’s a scary but a real reminder of how important this is to support HIAS,” Jacobs-Velde said, a reminder “of how important this work is to support the vulnerable.”
On Sunday, Daria Jacobs-Velde facilitated a sharing circle with congregation members for people to “take comfort in community” and discuss what they were feeling, according to Josh Jacobs-Velde.
The congregation has nearly 225 families, which can range from one person to up to six, Josh Jacobs-Velde said. A majority of the synagogue’s members are from Howard County.
Monday night’s vigil allowed for Oseh Shalom to come together with others as an interfaith community “and say, ‘No, we value people from diverse communities,’ ” he said.
For now, Oseh Shalom is not undergoing major changes to security but is reviewing its safety procedures.
“We don’t want to turn the building into a fortress,” Jacobs-Velde said. “We want to keep it a welcoming place but safe.”
Grossman was appreciative of the turnout Monday night.
“Anyone who is different is experiencing the acts that are coming out of the hateful rhetoric in society,” said Grossman, adding that anti-Semitism in Maryland is on the rise.
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“When we have an event like this, it gives people hope that we can turn this around. I really believe this evening shows that the desire [for change] is here among residents of Howard,” she said.