When I saw the news from New Zealand on Friday, the cracks in my heart widened. Another act of terrorism. Another act of hate. I know something of what the Christchurch community is going through because less than five months ago, my community went through something similar. On Oct. 27, a terrorist murdered 11 members of my synagogue in Pittsburgh.
On Friday, within hours of waking up, the staff at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh convened. Congregants began calling and emailing each other. We needed to organize. We needed to do something, and not merely to help people in New Zealand, but to counter Islamophobia at home. Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers shared this plea in an email to the congregation, “I ask you … to reach out not only to the injured communities, but to your Islamic neighbors as well.”
From our own experience, we know that the hours and days that follow will bring intense bewilderment and grief. Yet, after our shooting, there was something that gave us strength. In that time of pain and fear, another story emerged, one of hope and love.
On Oct. 28, I attended a hastily organized memorial service at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh. Dignitaries and politicians filled the front rows. We listened to the speeches, with their impassioned messages of support. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto spoke, as did various clergy, representative of many different faiths. At one point, the clergy leaders – Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Presbyterian, Hindu – crowded on the stage together. It was a powerful sight of unity.
One speech stood out for me more than all the others. Wasiullah Mohamed, the executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, took the stage. He announced that the center had begun raising money to pay for funeral expenses for the victims. He had already raised thousands, and in the coming weeks, the number would skyrocket to hundreds of thousands. Mohamed also made a vow. He pledged that the Pittsburgh Muslim community would stand with the Pittsburgh Jewish community. He and members of his community offered to personally stand guard at the doors of local synagogues, if necessary, to allow Jews safe passage to our places of worship and to accompany us if we felt unsafe running our daily errands.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of these words. Muslims offering to protect Jews? To me, there could be no greater olive branch, no more profound promise of peace.
Six days later, on a Friday evening, the Tree of Life congregation gathered privately in a small chapel at Rodef Shalom, a nearby synagogue, for the first service of Shabbat. As I waited for the service to begin, people I didn’t know filed in. Soon, the row behind me held a half-dozen strangers, the women in traditional abaya and hijab. I looked around and saw many Muslim families like them joining the crowd. When our congregation rose to speak the mourner’s Kaddish, they rose with us. Afterward, we thanked them. They offered us their condolences and invited us to attend a service at the Islamic Center. Salaam, I said. Shalom, they said.
Not long after, Mohamed coordinated an event bringing together survivors from the terrorist attack on the mosque in Quebec with the survivors from Pittsburgh. They all wept together.
Now in Pittsburgh, signs bearing messages of love and peaceful coexistence dot front yards, construction sites and shop windows. A popular one reads, in English, Spanish and Arabic, “No matter where you’re from, you are welcome here.” Others read, “No place for hate” and “Stronger than hate.” A few local churches have hung banners with the words “Love all thy neighbors.”
I hope that the bonds between the Pittsburgh Jewish and Islamic community continue to grow. The Temple Sinai synagogue and Islamic Center of Pittsburgh are co-hosting a Shabbat dinner in Squirrel Hill. And, next month, many Jews will be inviting people of other faiths to our Passover Seders. The 2 for Seder program is a national initiative launched by Marnie Fienberg in honor of her mother-in-law, Joyce Fienberg, one of the victims of the Tree of Life massacre. The hope, according to Marnie Fienberg, is to “build bridges to our neighbors.”
On a Saturday in Pittsburgh, there was one message of hate, but it was followed by millions of love. When my son asked me, “Why do people hate us? Why do people hate Jews?” I was able to point to evidence to the contrary. Let us now do the same for our Muslim brothers and sisters.
We can donate to lessen the burden that lies ahead for the families of the victims. We can reach out with messages of love and support. New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush encouraged Muslims to stay away from mosques; perhaps we can follow Mohamed’s example and make the same offer he did, to put ourselves between our Muslim neighbors and those who might mean them harm. We promise we will continue to work with you in our common fight for the right of people of any faith to worship peacefully. Pittsburgh and Tree of Life stand with the Islamic community of Christchurch in New Zealand.
Molly Pascal, a writer and a member of the Tree of Life synagogue, lives in Pittsburgh.
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