A year after Pittsburgh massacre, Metro Detroit Jews 'come together'

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

In the days after a gunman killed 11 worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last year, advocates called on others across the country to show their solidarity by joining congregations for services marking the Jewish Sabbath.

The American Jewish Committee’s #ShowUpForShabbat initiative prompted an outpouring of support in southeast Michigan, where some rabbis noted standing-room attendance and crowds filled with visitors from other faiths.

Rabbi Aaron Bergman, right, said Saturday’s service at Adat Shalom in Farmington Hills would offer special prayers on the one-year anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh.  He spoke about victory over hate and fear at the Friday evening Shabbat.

This weekend, nearly a dozen Metro Detroit congregations are observing the one-year commemoration of the tragedy, which affected multiple congregations in the Tree of Life synagogue.

Detroit-area synagogue leaders say they are opening their doors and inviting strangers to honor the victims and, amid rising anti-Semitism in the United States, build bonds to combat bigotry.

“We are coming together to show our Jewish community is thriving, warm and supportive, despite the fact that we are targeted now and always,” said Rabbi Jennifer Lader of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield Township. “Instead of being this period of mourning and grief, this … allows us to come together and recognize this new sacred moment of time.”

Some of the participating sites are approaching commemorative services Saturday with eyes on inspiration.

To address the many new visitors he expects to stand alongside regulars Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park, Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh plans to deliver a message focused on “how important it is to create and make connections with neighbors so we can understand each other better. I truly believe the more we can understand each other, the less we see what divides us.”

For some worshipers, division remains a constant specter.

Since the Oct. 27, 2018, synagogue attack in Pittsburgh, at least 12 white supremacists have been arrested for their alleged roles in terrorist plots, attacks or threats against the Jewish community, the Anti-Defamation League reported this month.

Worshippers attend Friday evening services at Adat Shalom in Farmington Hills on Friday. During the service, Rabbi Aaron Bergman referenced the one-year anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, and talked of the importance of just showing up.

The group’s Center on Extremism also has found 780 anti-Semitic incidents in the first half of 2019, compared with 785 reported in the same period last year.

In Michigan, officials said graffiti that included Nazi symbols was found spray painted on a synagogue in the Upper Peninsula in September. This month, advocates publicly denounced alleged vandalism reported at a Grand Rapids synagogue and the destruction of a holiday symbol outside a Jewish student center on the Michigan State University campus in East Lansing.

An American Jewish Committee survey released this week found 88% of respondents considered anti-Semitism a problem in the U.S.

Anti-Semitism is “very much on the rise,” said Lauren Herrin, assistant director at the JCRC/AJC, which represents the Metro Detroit Jewish community. 

The climate, and last year’s attack, has put Jewish institutes in the area “on high alert,” she added. “There has been a lot of work done in the last year to increase security.”

Marilyn Feingold of Livonia prays during Friday's service at Adat Shalom in Farmington Hills.

While attacks have made the need for stronger protection “more real and urgent,” worshipers are not shying away from showing their faith, said Rabbi Aaron Bergman of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, which is also holding Shabbat services. “If we stop living our life, then the bad guys win. … We know we can get through difficult things.”

On Saturday morning, Bergman plans to read the names of the Pittsburgh victims and encourage attendees to live fully, without fear.

“It’s just a powerful symbol,” he said. “There’s a power in coming together.”

Communal uplift guided services Friday at Temple Israel, which drew scores of congregants. “We felt strongly that it not be another vigil but a celebration,” Lader said.

The gathering heartened Geoff Nelson, who has attended the synagogue for about four years with his wife, Sara, and their two young sons.

News of the 2018 slayings left the Bloomfield Hills resident unnerved since it hit “so close to home,” he said.  But in the last year, he has been buoyed by the visitors at the synagogue and community members who seek details on what Judaism means to him.

“I noticed people have asked me more about the religion and had more interest,” Nelson said.