As millions of people world-wide reacted to the slaughter of 11 innocent Jews in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania last Shabbat, many of the local shuls in both Westchester and Riverdale spontaneously arranged community gatherings, memorial services and mass Tehillim recitations as a memorial tribute to those who died and those who sustained injuries.
On Sunday, October 28, the Beth El Synagogue in New Rochelle hosted a memorial service in Westchester County following their regularly scheduled Mincha/Maariv minyan. The synagogue prepared for what they believed would be a small crowd based on the short notice of the event, but was pleasantly surprised by the overflow crowd of 350 participants. Attendees included members of Beth El, Young Israel of New Rochelle, Temple Israel of New Rochelle, the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale and invited guests from other faith-based groups.
The event began with Rabbi Zachary Sitkin, Beth El’s assistant rabbi, welcoming the attendees. He stated, “In times like these it is hard to know what exactly to say, because words inevitably fail to capture the real and immense pain of a broken heart. No words can quite articulate the fear and pain and renewed sense of vulnerability that has now thrown itself in the hearts of so many people.” The rabbi then requested a moment of silence.
The event continued with Beth El’s Cantor Uri Aqua chanting the Kel Maleh in memory of the 11 people who were killed, followed by Beth El’s Rabbinic Intern Sam Blustin and Cantor Randall Schloss of Temple Israel of New Rochelle leading the recitation of several chapters of Tehillim. Other participants in the program included Sister Kathleen representing The Ursuline School, Beth El’s neighboring Catholic Girls High School. She read Dr. John Heidel’s Interfaith Universal Prayer for Peace.
Rabbi Sitkin added a special note to the event by sharing his personal link to the Tree of Life Congregation. He explained that after his year in Israel, he attended the University of Pittsburgh. While in college he looked for a Jewish community to which he could connect. He found the Tree of Life Congregation, and became an integral part of the community. Sitkin revealed that he served as a religious educator and the hockey coach of the synagogue. He painfully described how hard the past 24 hours had been for him, reading all the Facebook posts of his former students grieving over the events.
Rabbi Sitkin then changed the tone of the event to speak of hope for the future, and the entire assemblage sang Kol Ha’olam Kulo-Gesher Tzar Me’od and Hatikvah. Rabbi Sitkin then lit yahrzeit candles in memory of the 11 fatalities in Squirrel Hill. The program closed with Mourner’s Kaddish in their merit.
Elsewhere in Westchester on Sunday October 28, Congregation Kol Ami of White Plains hosted over 2,000 people for an inter-religious community gathering inspired by the theme of al tifrosh min hatzibur/do not separate yourself from the community. Participants included White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach and members of the White Plains Department of Public Safety, as well as members of other nearby congregations including the Hebrew Institute of White Plains. In publicizing the event, Kol Ami stated: “We are more afraid when we are alone and isolated; we strengthen one another as we come together in solidarity, courage and hope.”
Other communal events included the Young Israel of New Rochelle adding a special community Tehillim session following their regular mincha/maariv minyan Sunday evening. Further, the Riverdale community gathered at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale Saturday night for a brief memorial service. Moreover, the Jewish communities in both Westchester and Riverdale were provided with heightened security for all their religious and educational institutions by local law enforcement.
By Judy Berger