Saturday’s synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh unleashed a flood of compassion and concern in Newport Beach, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach and other local cities, where Jewish and interfaith leaders called for both remembrance of the 11 dead and continued vigilance at local houses of worship.
Though conventional wisdom would suggest that a fear of violence would keep the faithful away, the mass shooting had the opposite effect in Orange County, faith leaders said.
Worshippers “come in larger numbers after a tragedy,” said Rabbi David N. Young of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley. “They need synagogue more than ever.”
Jews turned to their temples to mourn, reflect and embrace their faith, as well as continue the weekly traditions of the Sabbath. They were shown support in candlelight vigils at the temple doors by interfaith supporters in Fountain Valley and in Newport Beach, as well as on the sand at a candlelight vigil in Laguna Beach.
It is “human nature to think of it as distant, and that it won’t, can’t happen to us, but when it happens to target the Jewish community, it hits us at home,” Young said. “We know we are just like Tree of Life in Pittsburgh — and all the congregations in the Orange County area.”
B’nai Tzedek congregants gathered with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Muslims and people of other faiths for a Sunday vigil of songs and psalms.
“We are not looking for answers for why this happened when we gather,” Young said. “We are looking for comfort. We are all in this together, we are all grieving.”
Even though Temple Bat Yam in Newport Beach holds Shabbat services on Fridays, congregants gathered Saturday for Torah study and prayer. A bat mitzvah took place as planned.
“Our best response to this tragedy is to come together on Shabbat,” Rabbi Gersh Zylberman said.
Temple security, of course, was a concern well before the most recent tragedy.
At Temple Bat Yam, there is an “active debate among members of congregation on how best to deal with phenomenon of mass shootings,” Zylberman said. “I think the focus of our thoughts should be on what kind of a country America has become, that places of worship and schools need to seriously consider instituting armed security, and what would it take to shift the landscape in America so that people could feel safe again.”
Congregation B’nai Tzedek expressed good relationships with local law enforcement, crediting founding Rabbi emeritus Stephen Einstein, a current police chaplain and former school board member who helped found the Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council in response to a hate crime.
Einstein expressed that even though California is largely seen as tolerant, Jews remain targets.
“Hate is with us, “Einstein said. “We have it here in this area.”
As a person who has spent decades working and participating in civic life, only recently has he begun to hear derogatory and anti-Semitic comments at council meetings and in public forums.
“I think, specifically, the last two years people who are filled with hate have been emboldened by what they are hearing from the White House,” Einstein said.
Stan Levy, executive director of Temple Bat Yam, reassured community members in a Facebook statement that the synagogue leadership was in contact with Newport Beach Police Department, Orange County Sheriff's Department and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Temple Bat Yam has taken security seriously for many years, Zylberman said, noting strong ties with the NBPD. However, after the 2012 Sandy Hook School shooting in Newtown, Conn., leadership “kicked up the relationship to another level.”
Temple Bat Yam has been the recipient of two Homeland Security grants aimed at securing nonprofits against threats of terrorism. The money was used to secure the property’s perimeter.
“It’s often been observed that a rise in anti-Semitism is like a canary in the coal mine,” Zylberman said. “We have to come together and ensure that which has happened in the past will never happen.”