Church, Synagogue Pray Together For Healing And Reconciliation


Pittsburgh — As a light rain drizzled outside, people took their seats inside the Rodman Street Missionary Baptist Church on Wednesday night. Ushers handed out fans for when the room would inevitably turn warm. The choir rose to sing.

“You’re all I want, you’re all I need,” the choir sang as people filed in. “Help me know that you are here.” As the clergy, including pastors from several local churches as well as Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, rabbi of New Light Congregation, entered the room, the choir sang what could have been a prayer to God or an expression of thanks to the clergy for their strength in the wake of Saturday’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. “You are the source of my strength, you are the strength of my life,” they sang. “I lift my hands in total praise.”

The evening was an emotional reunion between the members of the church and New Light Congregation, one of the synagogues that worships at Tree of Life Congregation where a deadly shooter killed 11 people last Shabbat morning. The two communities had been meeting regularly for five years, studying Proverbs, celebrating Rev. Martin Luther King’s birthday together and commemorating the victims of the attack on Mother Emanuel AME Church Charleston, in which nine African-American worshippers were killed by an avowed white supremacist in a church not unlike Rodman Street. As the choir sang, Beth Kissileff, the wife of Rabbi Perlman (and a frequent Jewish Week contributor), entered the church and fell into the arms of a woman from the church, who held her up as she wept. “You lift me up,” the choir sang.

Cantor Sara Mayo sang a prayer for healing, “Refaenu,” which she had sung for the church at a service in the wake of the Charleston shooting. “We pray for healing of the body, we pray for healing of the soul,” she sang. “We pray to once again be whole.” As she sang the prayer, the crowd rose to its feet and she choked up. They cheered louder, encouraging her to continue until she could sing again. “We pray for healing of our people, we pray for healing of this land, and peace for every race and nation, every child, every woman, every man.”

“I feel like I’m one of the members here,” said Rabbi Perlman to loud cheers. “We all pray to the same God and that God unites us in love, and it should not take a lunatic to bring us together.” (He was referring to Robert Bowers, the alleged shooter, who pled not guilty to multiple federal charges in a court hearing.) Rabbi Perlman recalled how Richard Gottfried, one of the victims of the shooting, loved studying Proverbs with the church group. “We now bear the yoke of the commandments, we now bear the legacy of these souls,” he said of his congregants who were killed.

The rabbi closed his remarks with words he shared at Sunday night’s interfaith vigil at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall: “This will not break us.”

“Lord, our souls are heavy because souls that were in our city last week are not with us this week,” Pastor William Glaze of Bethany Baptist Church said in his prayer for remembrance.

Mayor Bill Peduto, who has been a strong presence at community vigils and gatherings in the days since the shooting, addressed the crowd. “We have to do more than just show love for our Jewish community — we have to be that love,” he said. “We are Pittsburgh and we are stronger than steel and we are stronger than hate.” City Councilman and Rev. Ricky Burgess spoke of Pittsburgh’s responsibility to serve as a “national example” of reconciliation and peace.

Pittsburgh police chief Scott Schubert spoke about the attack and the quick response from on- and off-duty police officers and SWAT teams in the area. “We’re very fortunate that there weren’t more people killed … and I’m so thankful we stopped him there. God knows what could have happened.” said Schubert. (Four officers were injured in the attack.) “Every time we start to feel drained, it’s the community that lifts us up.”

“We want you to know that we love you, that it won’t be dark always,” said the choir director before leading another round of emotional singing. The ceremony closed with a candle-lighting ceremony, with a candle lit for each of the 11 victims and benedictions offered by several local pastors. “This light,” Pastor William Curtis said, “is symbolic of the light of the world.”