MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Mahopac and Putnam County came together Friday night (Nov. 2) at Temple Beth Shalom for a service of remembrance and solidarity for the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue murders in Pittsburgh.
The Mahopac synagogue opened its doors to the public, area elected officials, school officials and local clergy for a Shabbat service that featured songs, poetry and prayer to show solidarity with the Jewish community and remember the 11 who were killed during services on Oct. 27 when a gunman entered the Pittsburgh temple and began firing. Seven people were also injured in the attack.
Gail Freundlich, Temple Beth Shalom president, opened the service by welcoming the synagogue’s special guests.
“With great sorrow we are here to honor the lives lost in the Jewish community at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh,” she said. “Tonight, we share our grief together with all our community partners and neighbors. We give thanks to the various clergy, elected officials and neighbors who’ve joined us here. With special gratitude to all our first responders who spend each and every day helping all of us preserve the freedoms that we cherish.”
Temple Beth Shalom Rabbi Sarah Freidson explained that Jewish tradition marks the Jewish synagogue as a place of sanctuary, so to have congregants murdered in their own temple was particularly heinous.
“These wonderful people were slaughtered in their sanctuary—their sacred space, a sacred space that was made profane in the worst possible way,” she said. “Our tradition teaches, ‘make a sanctuary and [God] shall dwell with them.’ God dwells within each and every person and every one of us—[a sanctuary is] a place where God’s presence can shine forth; a place of safety, a beacon of light.”
Freidson said that people are surrounding the families and friends of the victims to lift them up.
“In Pittsburgh tonight there are nine families [of 11 victims] who are being welcomed back into their communities and being supported and held up,” she said. “Each individual’s grief is unique and yet we face it in a bigger context. So, we pray that the families who are bereaved, who are grief-stricken, that they find comfort. And that we also find comfort, and that we remember, when faced with grief, we continue, and we rise again…”
Freidson, often choking back tears, said it is Jewish tradition to welcome strangers, but added, sadly, she was not surprised by the attack.
“We are blessed with an abundance of love…[and] our doors are always open to the stranger and we hope that the stranger is kind,” she said. “It’s been a hard week. But when I heard about the attack I was not shocked. Wherever our people have gone, we have been killed or forced to convert. When we came to America, people stood with us and these attacks were condemned. We welcome our guests [tonight] because we need you. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Freidson said that after Friday’s service of remembrance, the challenge to eradicate anti-Semitism will remain.
“What matters is after we leave here; out there is where it matters more,” she said. “Anti-Semitism doesn’t go away. We need you to call it out. What matters more is tomorrow and next week.”
Several local elected officials were asked to speak and express their solidarity. Town Supervisor Ken Schmitt said anti-Semitism was not welcomed anywhere, especially here.
“We all wish we didn’t have to be here. We condemn the acts of violence,” Schmitt said. “Unfortunately, we live in a society where these acts happen, but that is not what we are about. It’s not acceptable, it’s not acceptable here in Mahopac; it’s not acceptable anywhere. As a community, we can pray together, and we stand in solidarity with Temple Beth Shalom. We can make it stop and that can start right here. Hate and bigotry—you are not welcome here. We are unified in that message.”
Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell said that when one person is the victim of bigotry and anti-Semitism, everyone is affected.
“America was built by people who left persecution. Each of us understands that when one American is assassinated for their religious beliefs, we all feel that pain,” she said. “We are a family in a world that’s always changing, and Putnam County will not tolerate [bigotry].”
At the end of the service, Temple Beth Shalom congregants took turns reading the biographies of the 11 Tree of Life victims.