Beth Kissileff: Fighting Hate, From Tree of Life Synagogue to Charleston’s Mother Emanuel Church

People from Pittsburgh’s New Light Congregation and Rodman Street Missionary Baptist Church join members of Mother Emanuel AME Church and the Charleston Jewish Federation to march in Charleston’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade on Jan. 21, 2019. Marchers included Beth Kissileff, second from left, with her husband Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, third, the Rev. Eric Manning of Mother Emanuel AME Church, fourth from left, with his wife Andretta Manning and son Eric Manning II. Also marching are director of the Charleston Jewish Federation Judy Corsaro, right, and Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum, second from right, of Synagogue Emanu-El in Charleston. Photo by Brandon Fish/Charleston Jewish Federation

In the first week after the shootings in the synagogue where my husband is a rabbi, our family received a packet of letters from a young woman in Los Angeles whose father had been killed along with 86 others in the bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina nearly 25 years ago.

Notes came too from young people who had lost family members in other terrorist attacks: a child of one of the 343 firefighters who died on Sept. 11, others whose parents were in the buildings, the children of people killed in the Basque ETA terrorist attack in Madrid in September 1985.

One of them, Juliette Scauso, wrote, “These events although life shattering, bring out an indescribable sense of strength and community that directly go against all the perpetrator’s main goals. This strength and support from others is what may be at times all that seems positive and a source to continue on, however it is a vital part of the healing process to surround yourself with community.”

Since Oct. 27, when 11 Jews were killed at our synagogue, New Light, which rents space at Tree of Life, along with Dor Hadash, our family and congregation, and our neighborhood, Squirrel Hill, joined these victims affected by gun violence and hate crimes.

Holding candles, a group of girls waits for the start of a memorial vigil at the intersection of Murray Avenue and Forbes Avenue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh for the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. A shooter opened fire Oct. 27, 2018, killing multiple people and wounding others, including several police officers. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

There were always dangers, but since the attack, there is a pervasive sense of danger in the neighborhood. We feel jumpy in our worship space, and have been looking for ways to feel less vulnerable.

One way is to try to feel less alone. As soon as we became victims of this hate crime, we thought of those who had had similar experiences. The Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., had been attacked in June 2015 and lost nine members; a mosque in Quebec had six members killed in a January 2017 attack; and six people were fatally shot at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., in August 2012.

The way to connect with someone is to meet them, which is how we decided to go to Charleston to visit Mother Emanuel Church. We saw it as a way of taking control of the narrative, to say that both New Light and Mother Emanuel Church were harmed by hate but that we in turn were sending a message of unity and of love.

For a long time, our synagogue had gone on bus trips. In fact, Dan Stein, one of those killed on Oct. 27, had been the president of the men’s club and often arranged them. Our last one was in July last year, when we visited Jewish and African-American sites in Pittsburgh’s Hill District with members of the Rodman Street Missionary Baptist Church.

The association with Rodman had begun a few years before, when New Light Rabbi Jonathan Perlman spoke to their committee for visiting the sick. It expanded to joint Martin Luther King Jr. Day services and then classes, most recently on the Book of Proverbs, which is a shared wisdom tradition.

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Source: Religion News Service