Laurel rabbi responds to Pittsburgh synagogue shooting: '[It] touches all of us'

After a gunman opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday morning — the deadliest attack on Jews in United States history — those of all walks of faith in Laurel are standing in solidarity through song, sharing circles and vigils.

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.”

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 shooting during a service held by the Tree of Life Congregation killed 11 people.

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 announced Monday 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.

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.”

Jacobs-Velde and over 1,400 community members attended a Monday night vigil at Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia to stand in unity as well as mourn and remember the lives lost.

The vigil allowed for Oseh Shalom to come together with others as an interfaith community “and say, ‘No, we value people from diverse communities,’ ” Jacobs-Velde said.

Oseh Shalom has nearly 225 families, which can range from one person to up to six, Jacobs-Velde said. A majority of the synagogue’s members are from Howard County.

Rabbi Susan Grossman, the main rabbi of Beth Shalom, knew something had to be done after her service was interrupted Saturday by police officers who came to inform her of the mass shooting. Within 24 hours, she and 40 clergy members from various religions helped organize the vigil.

“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.

Joanne Yocheved Heiligman, a 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.

Oaklands Presbyterian Church of Laurel opened its doors Tuesday night to record a rendition of “The Shema,” a prayer that serves as the centerpiece of Jewish morning and evening prayers.

The church's music ministry leader Justin Ritchie, who is a former piano player at Rodef Shalom in Washington D.C., asked for Oaklands Presbyterian to do a quick turnaround with song to offer support and solidarity, said Jesy Littlejohn, elder of worship at Oaklands Presbyterian.

The congregation has “always been one to fight for social justice … and for those on the fringes of society, including LGBTQ, minorities, anyone,” Littlejohn said.

“Oaklands in general is an openand affirming congregation,” said Littlejohn. “We follow the commandment to love God and our neighbors.”

The congregation has many members hailing from the Pittsburgh area, Littlejohn said.

After recording the prayer, Oaklands Presbyterian will send it to neighboring synagogues and congregations in the Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia area.

“To stand silently would be irresponsible of us,” Littlejohn said. “To sit and not do anything would go against everything we believe.”

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.”

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