The largest Jewish space in Colorado wasn’t big enough.
Some 3,000 people came to express their outrage, fear and interfaith support generated by the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in the US.
At Temple Emanuel, Sunday, Oct. 28, on less than 24-hour notice, an interfaith vigil in response to the massacre the previous day, in which 11 Shabbat morning worshippers at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh were gunned down.
Not only was every seat in the 2,000-seat sanctuary occupied, people also lined the walls, standing from back of the sanctuary to the front. As the sanctuary began filling up, the Temple Emanuel staff hastily arranged for the audio to be piped into the foyer and the social hall, where hundreds of seats were set up and filled.
The vigil was organized by ADL, JEWISHcolorado and Temple Emanuel.
The vigil was billed as an interfaith event, and indeed it was. Clergy wearing various types of clerical collars and headgear filed into the sanctuary, along with rabbis and cantors, Jewish community members, non-Jews, including people of color.
The vigil opened with the singing of Oseh Shalom, led by vocalists and musicians with the words projected on a giant screen to the right of the bimah.
Temple Emanuel’s Senior Rabbi Joe Black welcomed the crowd:
“We come from different faiths and traditions yet we are all bound together by our grief and shock. We pray for the victims of this tragedy. Our hearts and souls are directed toward Congregation Tree of Life in Pittsburgh — those who came to worship and celebrate on a fall Shabbat morning, those whose lives were taken, those who were injured by bullets, and those who were injured by the shock of being in the presence of evil and those who lost loved ones. We demand an end to the seemingly endless violence spurred on by hateful rhetoric that plagues our nation.”
ADL Mountain States Regional Director Scott Levin, master of ceremonies, invoked the ancient sage Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
ADL, Levin said, has been asking these questions since its founding in 1913. “Our mission is not only to stop defamation of the Jewish people. We also secure justice and fair treatment for all; we don’t just fight anti-Semitism, but we fight for all vulnerable communities.”
Jews have it pretty good in America, Levin said, so before Saturday, one might have wonder if anti-Semitism is “still a thing.”
“Unfortunately, unequivocally, anti-Semitism does exist. Right here in Colorado anti-Semitic incidents have been on the rise. Three years ago, our office tracked 18 incidences; the next year it was 45 and last year it was 57. This year since the beginning of the year, we’ve already counted close to 50 incidences of white supremacist activity in Colorado. So yes, anti-Semitism does still exist.”
Levin noted the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogrom that opened the floodgates of the Holocaust, next week on Nov. 9. “The neighbors didn’t stand up for the Jews. The clergy did not stand up for them. Law enforcement did not stand up for them. The government did not stand up for those Jews.”
He pointed out that representatives of those groups — neighbors, clergy, law enforcement and government — were all attending Sunday’s vigil, standing up for the Jews. Levin’s recognition of the law enforcement officials in attendance elicited the first of many standing ovations that evening.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock were called to podium together.
Hancock spoke first:
“Do not become numb. Do not become apathetic toward this trend of hatred and violence, that we have seen in our mosques, Christian sanctuaries and now in our synagogues.
“Any time the safety and sanctity of a faith community is violated, the ripple effects transcend the boundaries of religious doctrine, race and culture.”
The mayor likened Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, where the Tree of Life Synagogue is located, to Denver’s Hilltop and West Side neighborhoods with their high concentration of Jewish residents and institutions, “the heart of the Jewish community.”
“The roots of the Jewish community here in Denver are as rich and as deep as the city itself,” he said, but he acknowledged that there has been anti-Semitism here.
He declared that the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue cannot be allowed to become “just another historic tragedy.”
“Words will never do justice to what happened in Squirrel Hill,” Hickenlooper said. “It is, in every sense of the word, unimaginable, that worshippers gathered to feel the embrace of community and welcome new life would experience such a tragedy.”
“Anti-Semitism and any other form of discrimination debases our culture and degrades our values — those values we share as Americans. We are a nation built on freedom, and our most sacred freedom is that freedom of worship.
“It has come to the point that which we value most is most at risk. This is not okay! We will not give in to this hatred and we will not let it change our commitment to a peaceful, open society.”
He said that “Coloradans know the pain of gun violence far too well. We’ve sacrificed too much; we’ve lost too many friends, too many family members, but we can never accept as normal this kind of violence.”
Gov. Hickenlooper wished “comfort and healing in the face of this tragedy” to the Jewish people. “The history of the Jewish community shows you have the strength to get through this.”
Law enforcement was represented in the program by Denver Police Chief Paul M. Pazen and Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz, the two largest police departments in the state.
“We have heavy hearts, but we stand together,” Pazen said. His heart was made even heavier by the shooting a Denver police officer earlier that day at 10th and Sheridan. He called both incidents “senseless gun violence.”
“Law enforcement stands with this community. We will be here yesterday, today and tomorrow,” he declared.
Aurora’s Metz said, “We are up for this fight.”
He had spoken earlier in the day to the Pittsburgh police chief.
“His officers went in there knowing they may not come out. There have been so many things like that in Colorado — a theater shooting, Columbine — but our officers are going in, putting themselves in harm’s way for the community.
“We will not let those monsters succeed!”
Law enforcement was vigorously thanked by Levin and many speakers throughout the vigil, always to audience applause.
The audience then heard from three faith leaders.
Pastor Amanda Henderson, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, delivered a politically charged address, lamenting the division in the country “propagated by our leaders . . . This disease is killing us. . . We must elect leaders that act in ways that draw us together, not tear us apart.”
Henderson’s remarks were met with a standing ovation by most in the room and chants of “Vote! Vote! Vote!”
She was followed by the chairman of the Interfaith Alliance, Dilpreet Jammu, who founded the Sikh community in Colorado.
Jammu recalled the 2012 shooting in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in which six of its adherents were killed. He also referenced the 2015 Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, where white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African American congregants and injured three.
“No human being goes to their house of worship on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday or any other day of the week and expects to be shot and killed,” Jammu said.
“Even though we have been there, I wish I could tell you I know how you feel, but I cannot. It is not possible for me to experience your emotions, your feelings.”
Jammu had to hold himself back from crying.
“On behalf of all of Colorado Sikhs, we are truly sorry. Our house of worship is a place that should be safe to commune with the Divine, to worship, to serve those in need, to find our spiritual guidance — and it should be nothing else.”
Jammu waded into the controversy of gun control: “I am going to say something controversial. Our nation has greater reverence for an amendment in its man-made constitution than . . . ,” he said before he was cut off by uproarious applause and was unable to complete his sentence.
“I do not believe our political leaders will be able to solve these problems. We must work together as communities to resolves these issues for ourselves.”
The Colorado Islam Society, with some 35,000 members, was represented by the society’s general counsel Qusair Mohamedbhai, who said, “We’ve been where you are, and our hearts are broken. ADL was there for us when we lost our members at a mosque, and we are here for you now.”
He read a statement of support by 21 Muslim organizations, representing 75,000 adherents of Islam in Colorado.
He acknowledged that are differences between Jews and Muslims, but stressed that white supremacists blame HIAS — a Jewish organization — for helping Muslim refugees come to the US. Therefore, haters like the Tree of Life shooter blame the Jews and want to get them out of the way before they go after the Muslims.
“The safety and sanctity of Muslims is deeply connected to the safety and sanctity of Jews, and the safety and sanctity of Jews is deeply connected to the safety and sanctity of Muslims. We must stop white supremacy!”
Temple Emanuel’s Rabbi Black, Cantor Elizabeth Sacks and Steve Brodsky led the singing of “If Not Now.” The lyrics appeared on the giant screen and the audience sang along.
Rabbi Jay Strear, the new president and CEO of JEWISHcolorado, said “Our sense of security can be wiped away in a single moment. A basic trust in America has been violated . . . The pain of these deaths must be felt by us all.”
He pointedly said that JEWISHcolorado “proudly supports HIAS.”
He announced that JEWISHcolorado has established a fund to help the families and victims of the tragedy and contributions may be made at jewishcolorado.org. All funds will go to the victims.
The final speech was by Rabbi Salomon Gruenwald of HEA and president of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council.
“Tonight I am thinking about Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life Or L’Simcha Synagogue and my heart breaks for him and his community, as I can only imagine the task that lies ahead of him to bury 11 precious congregants and to help his community heal in the years ahead,” Rabbi Gruenwald said.
Gruenwald promised, on behalf of the clergy present, to provide the spiritual comfort needed after Saturday’s tragedy.
“Yesterday, when many of us were in our synagogues — while news broke of the massacre unfolding in Pittsburgh — we read Parashat Vayeira, which recounts how our ancestors Abraham and Sarah comported themselves with their neighbors. According to our sages, Abraham and Sarah’s tent was open on all sides so as to welcome visitors no matter where they came from.
“Their radical hospitality drew others close, allowing them to share a vision of ethical monotheism that would serve as a light unto the nations.
“Abraham and Sarah taught us that when you know your neighbors — when you see the spark of the divine that is in every human being — you cannot hate them. Indeed, you must love them.”
Rabbi Gruenwald closed with what he called “a secular prayer” by President George Washington:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States . . . gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.
“May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way, everlastingly happy.”
Rabbi Gruenwald invited all the clergy to the bimah for a ceremony in which a candle was lit for each of the 11 victims of Saturday’s shooting as each name was read. Cantor Sacks chanted the E-l Male Rachamim memorial prayer.
The 50-plus interfaith members of the clergy remained on the bimah and the program closed with Rabbi Menachem Creditor’s song, “Olam Chesed Yibaneh/A World of Love.”
Some 3,000 people sang it in unison.
Larry Hankin may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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