Reflection: Go To Shul

Hana Halff ‘21


On Saturday, November 3, 2018,  I dove deep into my closet and retrieved a Shabbat dress that had not been touched since Rosh Hashanah, left my phone at home, and canceled any previous plans I had made, to attend a Solidarity Shabbat at my shul. As a response to the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg, thousands like me met in shuls, community centers, and homes across the world for one unifying Saturday, a Solidarity Shabbat. Recently, I stopped going to synagogue regularly and now rarely attend services. But after attending a Mabat that emphasized the importance of showing up for shul and receiving several Heschel emails persuading me to go, I understood the importance of attending Shabbat services. The decision to take a break from my regular routine and to gather together in prayer, compassion, and unity was suddenly easy to make. While I was in synagogue, I kept in mind what Ora Weinbach, Limudei Qodesh Teacher and 9th Grade Dean, put it in the email “Go to Shul.” She wrote that by doing our best to attend shul on November 3rd, and on every Shabbat, we are “signifying that we are not afraid and will continue to show up for and participate in our community.  

Returning to the shul that I once regularly attended, Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, New Jersey, felt strange after not having gone in so long. I saw many new faces, but also more familiar ones. I felt a strong connection not only towards my old friends but even the people I did not know. At the beginning of services, handouts were given out with quotes, prayers, and songs about remembering, healing, and establishing peace. A couple sitting nearby leaned in to tell me about their relationships to the family of one Pittsburgh Massacre victims. Towards the end of the service, Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky spoke about valuing the safety of the synagogue and the support of the mayor of Teaneck and the second-in-command police officer, both of whom were in attendance. The mayor, Mohammed Hameeduddin, a Muslim, offered his support and told the congregation to “wear your kippahs with pride.” He concluded by saying that an attack on Jews is an attack on all religions.

Old Broadway Synagogue in Harlem, the shul I currently belong to, was supported by a vibrant group of families of Holocaust survivors in its heyday. Today it is a very small Orthodox congregation that is largely African American and also comprises second-generation members of the original families as well as a handful of long-time members. While I attended Congregation Beth Shalom with my mother in Teaneck, my family living in New York attended Old Broadway Synagogue. Afterwards we compared our experiences. According to my father, Old Broadway Synagogue had a somewhat different approach to a Solidarity Shabbat. The shul’s attendance is always on the lower side and November 3rd was no exception. However, the strong sense of community in the synagogue made up for that fact. Following regular services, the president of the Congregation, Paul Radensky, shared his thoughts about what Pittsburgh meant to him and the community. His remarks were very moving, as one of Radensky’s close friends is the rabbi of New Light, one of the three congregations that daven at the Tree of Life shul. Radensky reached out to his friend on Saturday night, the night of the shooting, and was given a first-hand, second-by-second, eyewitness account of the massacre — which Paul then proceeded to relay to the Congregation.

In some way, Solidarity Shabbat was no different than any other Shabbat for Old Broadway, aside from some extra precautions taken to monitor access. For Beth Shalom, however, Solidarity Shabbat structured every aspect of the morning services. Hearing the Beth Shalom congregants share their stories and their relations to Pittsburgh and listening to the connection between Paul Radensky and Tree of Life served as powerful reminders that we Jews are all interconnected and that the tragedy that befalls Jews anywhere affects all Jews everywhere. Moreover, the support from Teaneck mayor, Mohammed Hameeduddin, along with the Muslim Association of Greater Pittsburgh, prove that tragedies that befall Jews definitely do not affect only Jews. Solidarity Shabbat was the first time I attended Shabbat services in a very long time. But after my latest experiences at synagogue, I think I will decide to go to shul regularly again.



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