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Local Jewish community reacts to Pittsburgh massacre at La Jolla/San Diego gathering of thousands

In outrage and in grief over the deadliest attack on the Jewish people in U.S. history, nearly 2,500 people jammed University City’s Congregation Beth Israel on Monday evening, Oct. 29.

Two days earlier, 11 innocent Sabbath worshipers were slaughtered while attending a baby-naming ceremony at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Temple. The suspected gunman, armed with an AR-15 rifle and three handguns, reportedly told an officer he “wanted all Jews to die.”“Not only are bigotry and anti-Semitism unacceptable, they are profoundly un-American,” said San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, flanked on the Beth Israel bema by Council members Barbara Bry and Lorie Zapf, County sheriff Bill Gore, County district attorney Summer Stephan, Congress member Scott Peters, Assembly member Todd Gloria and school board president Kevin Beiser.

“There is no place for hate here,” Faulconer continued after 30 seconds of applause died down, “not in San Diego, not in Pittsburgh and not anywhere in our brave country. Any act of violence or discrimination in our community will not be tolerated.”

Faulconer encouraged the audience to “join together” and not let “the actions of one individual define who we are.”

Rabbi Michael Berk addresses the capacity crowd.
Rabbi Michael Berk addresses the capacity crowd. COREY LEVITAN

Earlier in the service, the names of all 11 victims — who ranged in age from 54 to 97 and included brothers and a married couple — received a poignant reading by Beth Israel rabbi Michael Berk. Each name was followed by 60 seconds of silence.

“I grew up in Southern California and hardly ever experienced any episodes of anti-Semitism,” the rabbi told the Light before the service. “While in some ways, something inside the Jewish soul says, ‘Something like this has always happened to Jews,’ as American Jews, it’s still a real shock.”

The Beth Israel service was organized by the Anti-Defamation League, which reported a 57 percent increase nationwide in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017. Indeed, security at Beth Israel was airport-tight, with bag checks and wandings performed on everyone — including priests, reverends and other rabbis — at two entrances.

A security guard searches all who wish to enter the Beth Israel grounds.
A security guard searches all who wish to enter the Beth Israel grounds. COREY LEVITAN

Although police said no threats were made against San Diego houses of worship, they significantly stepped up patrols of Jewish temples and gathering places in the days following the massacre. “We’ve been trying to make people feel safe,” assistant police chief Terence Charlot told the Light in the Beth Israel parking lot. “We want them to be able to worship without feeling threatened.”

As for any permanent new security measures that might be undertaken by the synagogues themselves, none contacted by the Light indicated anything specific yet.

“Ultimately, everybody has to up their security and awareness in the modern world we live in today,” said Chabad of La Jolla rabbi Baruch Shalom Ezagui. “However, the answer doesn’t lie in security. You can never stop a gun with a gun. You can stop a gun with a transformation in how we think. Our response has to be what more can we do to continue to inspire a world of more tolerance.”

About 400 people gained entrance to the grounds but were stuck outside the service due to overcrowding inside the sanctuary.
About 400 people gained entrance to the grounds but were stuck outside the service due to overcrowding inside the sanctuary. COREY LEVITAN

About 400 disappointed people made it onto the Beth Israel grounds but not into its sanctuary, which locked its doors for being over capacity. Another 50 made it to the parking lot but not the grounds. They included Point Loma Nazarene University professor Linda Beail and her 15-year-old daughter, Caroline. Beail said they came because a daughter of their close friend in Milwaukee was bat-mitzvahed on the same morning as the massacre.

“We were already thinking about her when we woke up and then we heard about Pittsburgh,” Beail said. “It was heartbreaking anyway, but the juxtaposition of this great celebration for someone we love with this horrible thing happening at another synagogue was just too much.

“People should be safe in their houses of worship,” Beail continued. “Whether it’s a mosque, a synagogue or a church, they should be safe. It’s part of what this country and freedom of religion are about.”

Being denied entry onto the temple grounds didn't stop these 100 strangers from sharing a message of interfaith hope.
Being denied entry onto the temple grounds didn't stop these 100 strangers from sharing a message of interfaith hope. COREY LEVITAN

By 7:30 p.m., police locked the gates to the entire complex to deter any more people from entering. But that didn’t stop about 100 from expressing the spirit of communion at least as well as anything happening inside the sanctuary. This group of castoffs formed a prayer circle outside Beth Israel’s westernmost driveway gate. For at least an hour, the strangers stood — some arm-in-arm — singing Jewish hymns including “Oseh Shalom” (“A Prayer for Peace”), “Ani Ma’amin” (“I Believe”) and “Hatikvah” (the Israeli national anthem).

Even more hopeful was who organized and led this prayer group: a man named Jon Huckins.

Pastor Jon Huckins.

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