PITTSBURGH—One week nearly to the hour after a gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life Synagogue killing 11 people and injuring six others, the three congregations that call that building home held a joint Shabbat service on Saturday that filled a neighboring synagogue with congregants along with Jewish and non-Jewish well-wishers.
It was one part of a worldwide campaign encouraging people to #ShowUpForShabbat on the Jewish sabbath in solidarity after the most deadly incident of anti-Semitic violence in U.S. history.
A crowd filled nearly every seat in the building that houses Congregation Beth Shalom, some in yarmulkes and prayer shawls, others in business attire for a service in which Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers took time to defend meeting Donald Trump, and to share the conversation he had with the president and his family.
It was in some ways a return to a degree of normalcy and tradition. Attendees recited Hebrew prayers from books handed out each week at local synagogues. The invocations include ones of mourning and unity and the start of a new month.
It was also, at times, a reminder of the tragic and surreal last seven days. Myers passionately defended his decision to meet with President Donald Trump on Tuesday at the Tree of Life building, despite widespread opposition from locals to Trump’s visit, and gave a partial account of what the two discussed.
Myers remarked on the long tradition of welcoming guests in Torah stories and said on the day of the shooting, he had planned to give a sermon on that very topic. Instead, he called 911 from a choir loft.
“I will not let anybody tell me who to allow as a guest in my house,” said Meyers. “I may not agree with some of the things any president ever says. That’s my right as an American.” But he welcomed the president “as a guest.”
Wearing a rainbow-colored tallit, the traditional prayer shawl, Myers said that he told Trump about the dangers of hate speech, which he said have emanated from Washington, D.C.
“I said to the president, ‘Mr. President, hate speech leads to hateful actions. Hate speech leads to what happened in my sanctuary where several of my congregants were slaughtered,’” Myers preached. “I didn’t witness it with my eyes. I witnessed it with my ears and I can never forget that the rest of my life.’”
Myers said he welcomed the president, first lady Melania Trump, the president’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner into the main entrance-way of Tree of Life. Several local and national political leaders, of both parties, declined to accompany the Trump family. Much of the building is still a crime scene, accessible only to FBI agents. “All I can tell you is you don’t want to go in there,” said Myers. “The images are seared into my brain.”
“I introduced the president to that space and in a moment that really surprised me, he put his hand on my shoulders and said, ‘Tell me, Rabbi Myers, how are you doing?’ Then he asked for me to tell my story of what happened. I gave my testimony to the horror that I witnessed that day at Shabbat and as I told that story, the president responded like this.”
Standing before a crowd of hundreds, Myers then pantomimed an open-mouth stare.
“The first lady gasped and put her hand over her mouth,” he said. “I was there to witness compassion, consolation and love of the president of the United States.”
Myers said he has received a torrent of negative emails, some challenging his fitness to be a rabbi. He said that response is part of an environment of anger and division that’s spreading through the country—a crisis he said he pleaded with Trump to help curtail.
Myers said that Trump’s staff kept in contact with him throughout the week and he received a follow-up phone call from Kushner. The president’s son-in-law and adviser offered his private cell phone number.
“I’m going to sell it to the highest bidder to benefit Tree of Life,” said Meyers in a moment of laughter that reverberated through the cavernous space.
Rabbi Cheryl Klein, of Dor Hadish, recalled waiting at the Jewish Community Center with families whose loved ones had not been accounted for through Saturday night and into Sunday morning. She and Myers discussed whether or not people would still come to services. They agreed they would. “This is exactly the reaction we need,” she said.
Of those murdered, Klein said, “We have to remember their lives. The ones who were killed were the most devoted Jews. They were the ones who were at shoal first. They were most devoted.”
She offered a piece of theological perspective that ended with a call to action: “God gave human beings free will,” said Klein. “Humans have a choice to do good or do evil and now people choose to do evil. So I don’t want anybody to say, ‘God spared your husband.’ No, no, that’s not acceptable theology. God created human beings with free will and human beings choose to do evil. We have to accept that, but our job is to ensure that those who choose to do evil don’t have access to assault rifles.”
The room shook with applause.
Hesh Rinefield, a Squirrel Hill resident who doesn’t regularly attends religious services, said he showed up in support. He added that residents of the neighborhood and Americans in general should reflect before taking any political action because of the shooting. “People should go on with their lives,” said Rinefield. “I don’t think people should jump to anything.”
Tina London, a member of Dor Hadish, who was not at the synagogue last Saturday, said she plans to go to more services. “Nothing could have been better” than today’s event, she said. “It just seemed like there was so much kindness.”
She said she thinks Pittsburghers will become closer after the shooting, noting money was raised by city-based Muslim groups for Tree of Life causes. “I do feel like this has made us kinder.”