Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who dubbed hate “the H-word” after the shooting massacre at his Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, spoke of his congregation’s parallels to the Chanukah story at the Cleveland Anti-Defamation League’s annual meeting Dec. 14.
Myers spoke of the similarities between the defilement of The Temple in Jerusalem following the war between the Assyrian Greeks and the Maccabees and the defilement of his own synagogue following the massacre on Oct. 27, 2018.
“I see similarities between what the ancient Jewish community in Israel faced and what we at Tree of Life faced,” he said. “Both our communities were minorities in our land. Both of our communities faced an existential threat to their existence. The Maccabees were victorious. We survived the massacre that slaughtered 11 worshipers in our building. I know. I saw it happen.”
James Pasch, regional director of the Cleveland ADL, said there were about 85 people registered for the virtual webinar, in which he listed the region’s initiatives of the past year.
Yelena Boxer, ADL’s regional board chair, spoke of the importance of the mission of ADL.
“There’s no easy way to explain hate, or the hate that led to genocide to children, let alone the hate that led to violence close to home, such as what happened at the Tree of Life Synagogue three years ago,” she said. “But we must. We must do so with our children, our families, our communities, our organizations and our governments at all levels. We must do so not only to honor those that we’ve lost, but to learn from our experience and to use our power as individuals, as a community and as a nation to stop hate and intolerance before personal prejudices fester, spread and turn into violence.”
Also speaking at the annual meeting was Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the ADL, who discussed the ADL’s decision to join a federal lawsuit against the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, as well as their leaders, for the attack on the U.S. Capitol Jan 6.
“In the complaint, the Office of the Attorney General … details how the groups planned, recruited, publicized, funded, and then carried out the attack – breaking through police barricades, forcing their way into the Capitol building, terrorizing members of Congress and their staffs, and brutally assaulting those who tried to stop them, including officers of the District’s MPD,” according to the ADL’s Dec. 14 news release.
“We filed this lawsuit today because we need to hold these people accountable,” Greenblatt said, referring to his press conference that day on the U.S. Capitol steps. “That was literally the most predictable terror attack in American history. How do I know that? Because ADL essentially predicted it.”
Myers spoke of the defilement of the Pittsburgh synagogue and of its rebuilding in progress, designed by architect Daniel Liebeskind.
“I have no doubt that there are other times throughout Jewish history when a community faced an existential threat, and somehow was victorious in the same way that Judah and the Maccabees were,” he said. “The story of the Tree of Life is not the first story in Jewish history. But insofar as the United States is concerned, it is sadly the first.”
Myers reflected on the relationship the Pittsburgh Jewish community has with the local Muslim community, who rushed to the aid of the synagogue and its worshipers, raising funds for funerals and offering help in concrete ways.
“That was not a singular event. It grew out of the longstanding relationship,” Myers said. “It says to the rest of the world, ‘No. Jews and Muslims can live together and work with each other to help each other.’”
In addition, Myers said the Diocese of Pittsburgh reached out to the Tree of Life “and made collections in all of their churches.”
The Tree of Life held High Holy Day services at Calvary Episcopal Church.
“I felt like I was davening at Hogwarts, quite frankly,” Myers said, referring to the fictional English boarding school in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. “And I mean it in the most loving way because this beautiful old Episcopal church was built in the 1800s.”
He said he wrote a Purim spiel based on that experience called “Herschel Potter and the Gantseh (complete) Megillah,” in which he wrote parts for the rector and assistant rector. This year, Myers will take part in the Christmas pageant at that church in a “guest appearance” as Moses, he said.
Myers said other faith communities have also reached out.
He said his congregation will do an exchange on Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend with historic Black churches in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, in which congregants will join the Tree of Life on Shabbat and Tree of Life congregants will pray at that church Sunday morning, where he will be the guest speaker.
“And my attitude is, if you’re going to open the door and extend a hand and friendship, I’m going to put my hand back through that door and grasp your hand firmly and walk with you together,” he said. “And that’s what I continue to do.”