by Tom Sims
An act of terror that was very evil, hateful, and tragic recently produced the opposite response to what was intended by its perpetrator. An expression of hate evoked renewed affirmations of and commitments to love. It was true across America and especially true in the Fresno area.
On Saturday, October 27, during morning Shabbat services, Gregory Bowers, 46, posted these words on social media, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Within a few minutes, a lone gunman, identified as Bowers, entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and killed eleven people while injuring seven others. Bowers was shot during the attack and survived to be charged with the murders.
He had been posting anti-Semitic comments against the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). He had specifically objected to their work with Central American migrant caravans and immigrants. Tree of Life has been a supporter of HIAS.
As Bowers received medical care from Jewish providers, he was reported to have told a police officer that he wanted all Jews to die because they were committing genocide against his people.
As the social media lit up with words of shock, support, and indignation, faith communities were rallying around the country to find some way to express support for their Jewish brothers and sisters. That was true in Fresno as well.
Fresno area clergy began calling local rabbis and Jewish friends. Members of their communities did the same. Statements were issued, and plans were made for a gathering that would cross boundaries and bring the community together to grieve and to affirm a renewed commitment to love.
On Tuesday evening, October 30, Rabbi Rick Winer convened a community service of remembrance at Fresno’s Temple Beth Israel. Over 500 people came. Among them were clergy representing many faith traditions who spoke and prayed. Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Protestant, Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, Native American, Latter Day Saints, and others were represented.
It was promoted as an “Interfaith Gathering of Understanding and Peace.”
Reza Nekumanesh from the Islamic Cultural Center, who had issued a statement immediately after the shooting, spoke eloquently at the community service. Reflecting on that, he said, “In a time that religious minorities are being banned, walls are being built, families are being torn apart at the borders, black bodies are an open target, and every form of hatred is being openly celebrated… What are you willing to do to be part of the change?!”
When it was time for the Torah reading, Rabbi Rick Winer called upon Pastor David Criner, a Baptist, and Reza Nekumanesh to hold either end of the sacred scroll.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer said, “I have been so moved by many moments of solidarity and hope in the last four days. But this ranks up as one of the most powerful: Rabbi Rick Winer asking his brothers Reza Nekumanesh and David Joseph-Lee Criner to hold the Torah as he reads Shema & V’ahavta during a standing room only (500+) interfaith Gathering of Understanding and Peace.”
“The love and support and friendship that we have in this community is such a blessing.”
Pastor Criner recounted how he had heard the news of the shooting from his daughter. She did not understand that it was across the country and immediately feared it had happened in Fresno. Crying, she reported that her Uncle Rabbi had been shot.
Such is the relationship of many interfaith leaders in the Fresno area.
Retired Pastor Norman Broadbent observed, “This is the image of Fresno that is relevant today…and for the days ahead!! Thank you Rabbi Rick Winer, Rabbi Laura Winer, and interfaith partners for standing together for decency, goodness, true justice, and love’s saturating healing!!”
In fairness to the rest of the country, there have been reports of this kind of support in many cities. Rabbi Mychal Copeland’s synagogue in San Francisco, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, shares space with a Mennonite congregation. November 2 marked their first Shabbat service after the attack in Pittsburgh, twenty of the Mennonites showed up demonstrate their support, standing outside, singing hymns and placing their bodies between their neighbors and any threat.
Rabbi Copeland said, “My chief hope since the shooting has been that we will refuse to live in fear.” She added, “I’ll take 20 Mennonites over one armed security guard any day.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Meyers of the Tree of Life Synagogue recently blogged after the first Shabbat of Chanukah, “We are instructed to place a Chanukah menorah in the front window of our homes that faces the street for all to see. In Hebrew it is called pirsoom ha-nes, ‘publicizing the miracle.’ Over the years this has led to public lightings, and even inflatable lawn decorations.”
“…My guiding principle has been pirsoom ha-nes – we won’t let where the shooting occurred the light go out, and the world has to know that. I was inspired by the Peter Yarrow song ‘Light One Candle.'”
Rather than retreat, hide, or build walls between us, the spiritual leader of the congregation that had experienced the attacked reaffirmed the words:
“Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years.
Don’t let the light go out, let it shine through our love and our tears.”
I asked Rabbi Rick Winer of Temple Beth Israel for his observations.
Tom – You have invested in deep interfaith relationships in this community over the years. How did this prepare you, your congregation, and the community for responding to the tragedy in Pittsburgh?
Rabbi Rick – It took all of two minutes to quickly text whoever I could easily find in my phone to see if they would join us for a service the following evening and get positive responses from all of them. It was so gratifying to not only see the overwhelming response but to already have fond personal relationships with this powerful interfaith community. In addition, staff of Faith in Fresno helped get out the word so our formal network was invaluable in the response.
Tom – Can you describe some of the responses that you received to these events?
Rabbi Rick – The responses were so positive and powerful ranging from loving, supportive messages, donations for repairing the damage all the way to offers to guard our building. Honestly, the most powerful responses were the warm hugs from our awesome interfaith friends.
Tom – The service you hosted was well-attended. Did this surprise you or any of the members of your congregation?
Rabbi Rick – I wouldn’t say I was surprised, rather humbled and deeply appreciative. Quite a few Temple Beth Israel members were awed by the response and impressed by the benefit of the interfaith networking they’ve heard me talk about and seen in the media.
Tom – I was deeply moved by the service, the messages both you and Laura brought, the way you moderated the flow, all the speakers, and the participation of the people present. What I expected to be very somber had opportunity for lament, but also challenged us, inspired us, and gave us a sense of hope. Can you comment on that? Is that something that is characteristic of the Jewish tradition?
Rabbi Rick – I’ve long appreciated the balance in Judaism. Humor is not only an important part of Jewish tradition, but I believe it is also a tool of survival. Laughter through tears. It’s not unique to Judaism. The African American tradition of Blues music functions in a similar way. We can lament and laugh in the same moments. When I observe families in mourning, I get concerned if it’s all one or the other…either all laughter or all tears. When I see a reasonable balance, I feel like they’re in a healthy process. I guess the same could be said of our communal responses.
Tom – Somehow, I felt that there was something about Fresno that night that was unique. I know that the response to this act of terrorism and hate was profound across the country, but I sensed that there was something special about the friendships and love that were already at work here. Am I on to anything here?
Rabbi Rick – I completely agree that we have built this powerfully positive network of interfaith collegial love and respect. It’s bigger and broader than I’ve ever experienced. I came from the Bay Area in northern California which is quite liberal, and I think we took for granted the ease of interfaith relationship and didn’t utilize it as much or as often as we do here. Perhaps the need for it here helps us keep it strong and active. I also think that our true care for each other and enjoyment of each other helps keep our activity thriving.
Tom – I was distressed that there was an act of hate directed at your congregation that night with the defacing of your sign. Are there any updates or anything that you can tell me about that?
Rabbi Rick – The sign has been restored. The letters were torn down but left in the bushes and once the police finished they’re forensic analysis we were able to get them back up on the wall. The FBI and police have continued their investigation with serious care, but I don’t have a high expectation that we will catch the person responsible. Ultimately, I found the attack to be an important reminder that hatred does exist in our region and we cannot remain complacent.
Tom – Is there anything you would like for me to ask or you would like to say about all of this?
Rabbi Rick – Ultimately, the overwhelming outpouring of love completely overshadowed the one act of hate. Law enforcement has been very helpful and responsive. Several civic leaders reached out. The interfaith community continues to be awesome. We can focus on the blessings or the curses. I choose to focus on the blessings and give them the spotlight they deserve. We are surrounded by blessings and for them I am grateful.
To that, I can only add, “Amen.”