A meeting room at the Alpert Jewish Community Center was packed for Shabbat on Saturday morning with members of the small congregation of Shul by the Shore spilling out into the hallway.
They were trying to listen to what Rabbi Abba Perelmuter would say in the wake of the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
This week, synagogues across the country participated in Show Up for Shabbat, where practicing and non-practicing Jewish people and non-Jewish people would come and participate in Shabbat services at their local synagogues as a show of solidarity.
Most synagogues, including Perelmuter’s, held a memorial service for the victims, where they said the Kaddish, a mourning prayer. At this service, the congregation put the traditional synagogue set-up—women on one side and men on the other— aside and sat together.
“I wish I could tell you that I have a plan, I wish I could tell you that I came over here and I worked it out and I thought it through and I have the perfect plan of what we should do (in case of a shooting),” Perelmuter told his congregation.
But he doesn’t, he said, because there’s things in life we simply can’t control.
“This was something that was unbelievable, shocking, shocking to us,” Perelmuter said to the congregation of about 75. “This could’ve been our brothers, this could’ve been our sisters, our mothers, our grandmothers, our grandfathers, it could’ve been anybody here.”
Perelmuter shared passages of Psalms, including 23—”the Lord is my Shepard”—Psalms 20 which is a prayer for times of distress, and Psalms 121 which says help comes from God.
But that wasn’t the main message of the morning.
“Now comes the hard part, because the hard part is about us,” he said. “We said nice words to God, we prayed, we hoped, we beseeched Him, and now we leave it up to Him. Now we gotta think about what we’re gonna do.”
It’s easy to leave synagogue, or shul, thinking they learned something good and they will be better people, he said.
“You know whatever I’m going to say, the moment you get into the parking lot and someone cuts you off, all the nice platitudes that I’ve said today—be a nice person—go right out the window,” Perelmuter said with his signature humor.
To this, the congregation laughed knowingly. While the overall mood in the room was serious, Perelmuter lightened it periodically with funny illustrations about car troubles and difficult children.
The congregation goes through the Torah in sections week-by-week. It’s the teaching style, he said, and when they eventually reach the end, they start back up at the beginning. Today’s story just so happened to be about when Sarah, the wife of Abraham and who is called the “mother of the Jewish people,” died and how a wife was found for their son Isaac.
The story goes that when it was time to find Isaac a wife, the servant who was searching asked God that Isaac’s future wife would offer to give not only him water, but offer to give water to his camels; she would be kind.
“This is greater than charity,” because kindness is for everyone all the time, Perelmuter said. “Every human being deserves that kind of respect and that kind of kindness to be extended towards them.”
Reacting to negative things they can’t control with kindness is paramount in life, he said.
“If we ever needed this kind of message like we read today, this is what we needed because this country right now is not kind,” he said.
“We don’t hear each other anymore. There’s nothing wrong with debate and there’s nothing wrong with arguing. If you look at the Talmud, the Jewish book of law, it’s full of arguments, fighting, screaming and shouting at each other, yes, but it always took place with the other side being recognized as a human being.”
The people in the congregation nodded knowingly.
Perelmuter then referenced an interfaith vigil in Pittsburgh earlier this week where an imam addressed the young Jewish people in the crowd, telling them that the imam and his congregation loved them and to wear their yarmulkes proudly.
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Perelmuter urged the congregation. “They’re not going to love us any more if we hide.”
After the memorial service, people walked up to the rabbi and thanked him for his words of encouragement. Then, they organized the shul back to its normal set up.
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