Days after a gunman allegedly yelled “All Jews must die” and murdered 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, thousands gathered at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington to mourn, pray and condemn bigotry Monday night.
The highest elected officeholders from D.C., Maryland and Virginia decried violent rhetoric while Jewish community leaders and clergy from an array of faiths and denominations shared the stage to grieve and commit to combating hatred.
“We remember and we honor Joyce, Richard, Rose, Jerry, Cecil, David, Bernice, Sylvin, Daniel, Melvin and Irving,” said Adas Israel’s Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, reading the names of Saturday’s victims at Tree of Life Synagogue. “We honor them because of the way they embody the best of who we are as Jews, as religious people, as humans.”
The interfaith service, organized by the Conservative congregation along with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, drew more than 3,500 people according to JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber.
The line to enter the synagogue snaked around the building and about a half-mile down Porter Street as the start approached and attendees slowly passed a large Metropolitan Police Department presence through metal detectors. Overflow seating was provided but many were not allowed in due to the building’s capacity constraints.
Inside, the region’s political leaders began the evening. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D-D.C.), Gov. Larry Hogan (R-Md.), and Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) all spoke.
“I say [to the Jewish community] on behalf of all of us in Washington, D.C.: We love you, we mourn with you, and we are sorry that our nation let you down on Saturday,” Bowser said. “… The burden of ending anti-Semitism cannot be on the Jewish community alone. … It lies with the allies in this room tonight and across the nation.”
Bowser, Hogan and Northam all pledged that they would use their respective offices to rid the region of anti-Semitism and faith-based violence, but it was Halber who gave the most impassioned and forceful speech of the night.
He noted the other high-profile acts of violence in the week leading up to the Pittsburgh attack, when a man allegedly mailed over a dozen improvised explosive devices to prominent Democrats and another man in Kentucky reportedly tried to attack an African-American church before killing two African-Americans at a supermarket. “What is happening in our America?” Halber asked.
“Make no mistake about it, what happened on Shabbat was the most violent attack against Jews in our nation’s history,” Halber said, calling the shooting Saturday morning “entirely predictable” and saying the most important thing that can happen to prevent similar attacks is “a change in our national discourse.”
“Something has become rotten, something has become rotten in America’s moral fiber and our society, and we must and we will take America back. … We insist that when racism and anti-Semitism and bigotry arise from anywhere in our society it is immediately, wholeheartedly condemned without reservation or equivocation from across the political spectrum,” Halber said to a standing ovation.
Outside, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) addressed those that couldn’t get inside.
“My father used to say, ‘When everything looks hopeless, then you’re the hope.’ So I told everybody they’re the hope,” Raskin said when the service concluded.
In attendance were Evan Goldman, Amie Perl and their three young children — all members of Adas Israel. Goldman said that the violence on Saturday has become routine, but that he was heartened by the interfaith response he’s seen. Speakers Monday night included Reverend Mansfield Kaseman, Montgomery County’s interfaith community liaison, and Reverend Timothy Warner of the Emory Grove United Methodist Church in Methodist.
“I think the saddest part is that it seems so normal that it almost wasn’t shocking to hear [about what happened Saturday],” Goldman said. “But what’s nice about events like these is that it’s interfaith, it’s bringing a lot of people together, not just the Jewish community. We won’t solve these issues alone. We need to bad together and be one and we’ll eventually win the battle.”