Shabbat service honors Pittsburgh shooting victims
Synagogue service in Waldorf also marks 80th anniversary of Nazi ‘Night of Broken Glass’ in 1938 Europe
Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Waldorf invited the public to attend a solidarity service Friday evening to remember the lives lost in the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, in which 11 people were killed and seven injured.
The ceremony also featured an eyewitness account of the two-day-long Nazi pogrom against Jews known as Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass,” which took place 80 years ago this month.
Congregation members, who come from all three Southern Maryland counties, had to set up chairs in the foyer to accommodate all the attendees, which filled the congregation’s hall on Henry Ford Circle.
Charles County Sheriff’s Office deputies in plain clothes were on hand to provide security, reflective of tensions that are on the rise in Jewish congregations around the country following the shooting.
Congregation member Rachel Solomon opened the shabbat, a ceremony marking the traditional day of rest, with a poignant rendition of “Etz Chayim,” which translates as “Tree of Life.” Congregation president Elaine McVinney then welcomed members of the community and thanked them for their presence.
“It takes courage to walk into someone else’s place of worship with people you’ve never met and stand by in support, knowing that these may not be your traditions, but allowing others the freedom to pray in peace and follow the customs of our ancestors,” McVinney said.
Jasha Levenson, the congregation’s education chair, led the shabbat service, occasionally pausing to explain terms and cus- toms that might be unfamiliar to the non-Jews in attendance and at one point calling on children in the audience to relate the meaning of a story.
Levenson explained that the congregation’s name, “Sha’are Shalom,” translates to “Gates of Peace.” The congregation has 50 families, many of which are interfaith.
“Whether your favorite prophet is Moses, Jesus or Mohammed, whether you believe in one God, many gods or none at all, you are welcome here tonight as we stand sideby-side in solidarity, committed to living in peace and appreciating our differences,” Levenson said.
“We are also here to stand in solidarity with the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and with all Americans as we mourn the senseless loss of life that occurred during a shabbat service and naming ceremony less than a week ago,” Levenson said.
The Tree of Life shootings are believed to be the nation’s deadliest attack against Jews in its history. The perpetrator has been charged with committing federal hate-crime offenses and could face the death penalty.
Ellen Cohen, a longtime congregation member, recounted witnessing the ransacking of her synagogue and school in Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart, in November 1938 during Kristallnacht, an orgy of violence during which Nazis looted and destroyed nearly 300 Jewish synagogues as well as countless businesses, hospitals and schools throughout Germany and Austria.
Cohen said that one of her uncles ran a shoe factory in Ludwigsburg, and another owned a department store, and three of the town’s Jewish residents served as firemen.
After the Nazis seized power, they prohibited Jews from working in the government or teaching. Cohen recalled that her father was even prohibited from visiting his favorite basement bar, or rathskeller, where he loved to spend time reminiscing with veterans of the war.
Then, on the morning of Nov. 10, 1938, as she prepared to board a train to attend the Jewish day school in Stuttgart, Cohen recalled, “the phone rang at 7:10 a.m. and a voice urged my mother to stop the children from getting on the train to Stuttgart. My mother, with her apron still on … ran to the station to find that our train had already departed. The station master, whose wife had cleaned house for us for many years until the Aryan laws prohibited it, promised to telegraph the Stuttgart station and ask that the children be sent back. But we never got the message.”
As she and her friends neared their school, Cohen recalled, “we saw a tremendous commotion.”
“The Stuttgart synagogue, adjacent to our school, was in flames,” she said. “Spectators started shoving us to the center of the action so that we wouldn’t miss the spectacle of the burning building, the sound of the stained-glass windows popping in the heat, the struggle of the school principal trying to get in to save some of the Torah.”
“Just when we thought the world was coming to an end, two nuns from a nearby Catholic school approached us, even though such kindness endangered them, and hurried us back to the train station to return to Ludwigsburg,” Cohen said.
But upon returning to their town, the children found that the violence had spread there, too. Nazis vandalized Jewish businesses and burned the town’s synagogue, and the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, rounded up members of the town’s Jewish community to transport them to concentration camps.
Cohen’s father was among a group of people who were taken by the Gestapo to the local jail, where the warden — a fellow veteran — warned him covertly to leave Germany as soon as he possibly could.
Levenson said that Jewish congregations continue to tell stories like Cohen’s, as well as those of other events like the shooting in Pittsburgh, because “they do not happen out of nowhere.”
“They stem from misinformation campaigns that have been passed down through generations and generate hate and mistrust rather than tolerance and acceptance for our neighbors who are different from us,” Levenson said.
“We must learn to appreciate our differences and to support others in their own pursuits of happiness, even when their paths are different from our own,” he said.
Prior to the service, an anonymous resident left a bouquet of flowers and a candle by the front door of Congregation Sha’are Shalom’s synagogue along with a note.
“I’m so sorry,” the note said.
Jasha Levenson, education committee chair at Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Waldorf, reminds attendees at Friday’s shabbat service that “[w]e must learn to appreciate our differences and to support others in their own pursuits of happiness, even when their paths are different from our own.”
Shabbat candles burn during the service on Friday.