Too close for comfort

Local religious leaders come together in sympathy for Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh touched a nerve among a number of people of faith in Jersey City, and for a number of reasons.

Rabbi Leana Moritt of the Congregation of Beth-El in Jersey City was brought to tears when religious leaders from elsewhere in the city joined her congregation to help them deal with the tragedy.

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Moritt, a teacher, counselor, and rabbi in the Reform tradition of Judaism, took over at Beth-El earlier this year. She is known for her community outreach and sometimes unorthodox approach, including once holding a service with members of the Grateful Dead.

Indeed, her reaction to the outpouring of support from the non-Jewish community was to quote The Beatles, saying, “We’ll get by with a little help from our friends.”

On Oct. 27, a gunman attacked the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people and wounding six others, including four police officers.

Showing support for the Tree of Life congregation, members of Beth-El in Jersey City gathered only to be surprised when Rev. Laurie Wurm of Grace Church Van Vorst and Rev. Tom Murphy of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church arrived at the Shabbat service with their parishioners.

They brought notes of condolence and solidarity with Beth-El and the larger Jewish Community.

“Beth-El has a long history of interfaith friendship and cooperation” – Rabbi Leana Moritt

In response, children from Beth-El religious school wrote thank you notes.

“It was a catalyst to a healing moment at a time of great pain and confusion,” said Rabbit Moritt. “I think it helped all of us, especially the children, to know we are not alone. When one of us is injured, we all hurt.”

Although separated by hundreds of miles, Beth-El and Tree of Life have a lot in common.

Both synagogues started near the end of the American Civil War in 1864. Both struggled initially as to what direction they would take, Beth-El eventually opting to follow a Reform path in Jewish faith. Tree of Life decided to go towards an Orthodox approach, though both synagogues worked through variations over the years.

The founders of Tree of Life came predominately from an area of Eastern Europe which would eventually become Poland.

Temple Beth-El is the oldest of Jersey City’s congregations, founded in 1864 on York Street, and moved to its current location on Harrison Avenue and Kennedy Boulevard, in a temple modeled after the style of Middle Eastern architecture found in Istanbul.

Beth-El introduced English-language service rather than Hebrew and was prominent in the promotion of women. Tree of Life also began a tradition that increase the role of women in its services.

Both synagogues helped throughout American conflicts, offering services to soldiers as well as sending volunteers to programs such as the American Red Cross.

Both were prominent in support of the founding of the nation of Israel, and in fact, Tree of Life postponed plans for a new synagogue to send money to Israel during its earliest year. Beth-El also became strong advocates for a Jewish state.

Both synagogues became involved in their local communities, with Beth-El becoming a leading proponent of Civil Rights, greeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he came to Jersey City in 1968, and has since gone on to become a powerful supporter of the LGBTQ movement.

Like Beth-El, Tree of Life embraced its American heritage, turning away from the original concept of a rise of a new Zion in the Middle East.

“America is our new Zion,” they are quoted as saying when founded, meaning they chose to build a new world for Jews in the United States.

Both communities have what is called an “open tent” philosophy in welcoming strangers to Jewish Values.

“Beth-El lives our values in that we have always been open to all who want to pray, learn and repair the world with us,” said Rabbi Moritt.

The service at Beth-El was followed by an interfaith “Stronger than Hate” rally at City Hall in Jersey City on Oct. 28. This was organized by Jewish Community Leader Tal Schuster and included speakers such as Rev. Murphy, Shaykh Mohamed Mouse, Imana and president of the Tri-State Imans Council, Mohammad Ali Chaudry, president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, Rabbi Moritt, and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, among others.

Rabbi Moritt said the rally was a message of support for the Jewish community in the wake of the Pittsburgh tragedy and advocated standing up to those who espouse hate, intolerance, and bigotry.

“Beth-El has a long history of interfaith friendship and cooperation,” Rabbi Moritt said. “The support we feel is not only a response to our common values of life, justice and fairness, but as an outgrowth of the relationship forged by working and breaking bread side by side in many areas.”

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