Pittsburgh Shooting Overshadows Rabbinic Gathering

As part of an annual conference, thousands of Hasidic rabbis gathered for a giant group photo in Brooklyn Sunday morning, Nov. 4. The normally celebratory event, however, was overshadowed by last week’s deadly attack at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.

The 5,600 religious leaders attending the conference gathered for a group photo Sunday morning. (The Ink/Sabrina He)

Following the group picture, the delegation of rabbis from Pittsburgh led thousands of their colleagues in a prayer ceremony and solemn song to mourn the loss of those killed and to pray for their families and the injured.

The 5,600 religious leaders convened in New York from more than 100 countries for the weeklong International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries. These emissaries, or shluchim, are posted around the world to places as far away as Laos, New Caledonia and Uganda, in a collective effort to spread Judaism and serve local Jews.

This year, the monumental gathering was interrupted by what the Anti-Defamation League called the deadliest attack on Jew in the U.S. The attack killed 11 congregants from the Tree of Life synagogue and injured several others.

Yisroel Altein, a 41-year-old rabbi who has served in Pittsburgh for 15 years, said he was leading services at his synagogue when he learned about the shooting while it was still going on. He ordered members into lock down to keep everyone safe. “We were shocked,” he repeated three times during an interview on Sunday. “We never expected something like this to happen, and we don’t think anyone in the world should expect something like this to happen, especially not in the United States.”

Such lingering shock was shared by Golah Azulay, a 50-year-old actor and singer from Israel who traveled to Brooklyn to perform at Sunday’s morning photo ceremony and evening banquet. “All of a sudden I felt like people are running after the Jews again, said Azulay. “I thought that in America, it was finished.”

Similarly, 63-year-old Rabbi Michael Phillips serving in Westchester called the attack “a wake-up call” that illustrated the consequence of complacence. In light of this tragedy, he said, people should make a greater effort to be “actively kind to each other.”

Menachem Mendel Moskovitz, a 28-year-old rabbi serving in Kharkiv, Ukraine, described how the shooting “brought a lot of pain, not just to the people who were killed but to the Jewish community as a whole,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the world. This hits home whether you are Jewish or not.”

One rabbi who was not as shocked was 37-year-old Mendel Matusof serving in Madison, Wisconsin. He said he was personally less surprised because, compared to secular Jews more integrated into American culture, he was “much more aware of these things.”

Instead, Matusof said he was more shocked when over 1,000 students from the University of Wisconsin came out to show their support after learning about what happened. He said he was overwhelmed by the kindness and compassion of Jews and non-Jews all over the world in what he thought was a poignant silver lining to an otherwise purely tragic event.

Indeed, people interviewed in the Crown Heights community near the headquarters did not express hatred in spite of the hateful act. Several individuals repeatedly said that kindness is the only weapon for fighting evil. In the wake of such an attack, said Altein, it is especially important for people to “be kind to each other and strengthen each other” because “love is stronger than hate” and anger is never a solution to violence.

Similarly, Moskovitz said that “when we get together and unite, we are powerful.” While he was deeply saddened, he did not convey hatred. Doing so, he said, would be part of “a never-ending cycle” that always circulated back to violence.

Header photo: (The Ink/Sabrina He)