His voice quaking with emotion, Rabbi Reuben Poupko recalled “the beautiful community” of Squirrel Hill, where he grew up, and where his father led a synagogue just a few blocks from the Tree of Life Congregation for 60 years.
The Jewish community has always been an integral part of Pittsburgh and its members are among the most generous contributors to hospitals and cultural institutions, he said.
“The beauty of the Jewish community is a provocation to some, because it reminds them of their own ugliness, their own failure. There are two responses: emulate it, or destroy it,” said Rabbi Poupko at a commemoration for the victims of the Pittsburgh massacre held on Oct. 29 in the Montreal suburb of Côte-St-Luc.
More than 1,000 people filled Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aaron, many standing and others spilling outside. They included members of other communities and politicians from all levels of government.
“It’s a beautiful sight, people of all faiths and backgrounds here, comforting us in our pain,” said Rabbi Poupko.
He affirmed that Jews are “resilient and live with hope.”
The response to this “hate and evil” is to “stand up, dust yourself off, go to synagogue the next morning – maybe look over your shoulder – and open the same books and say the same prayers Jews have always done, teach the same values to our children … continue to be proud Jews who bring beauty into this world. With every fibre of my being, I say, Am Yisra’el Chai.”
The 90-minute event took place under heavy security. Police cruisers surrounded the synagogue and private guards searched everyone coming in.
Two police on horseback stood sentinel as the crowd left, and many thanked the police for their protection.
David Amiel, president of Federation CJA, which sponsored the commemoration, expressed appreciation for the outpouring of sympathy and solidarity with the Jewish community in this “harrowing time.”
The Federation, he said, is working closely with police to ensure the security of the community, but he urged vigilance nonetheless.
“If you see something suspicious, say something, but never be shy to display pride in your identity and to live your daily lives without fear,” he said.
Quebec Vice-Premier Geneviève Guilbault, who’s also the minister of public security, said the provincial government “forcefully condemns this horrific act.… Our message is clear: solidarity with the Jewish community of Quebec and everywhere in the world to combat hate, violence and anti-Semitism.”
Also speaking at the commemoration was federal Tourism Minister Mélanie Joly and Magda Popeanu, vice-chair of Montreal’s executive committee, who both called for a united front against hate. During a moment of silence for the 11 dead, city hall’s lights were turned off.
Among the other dignitaries present were interim Quebec Liberal leader Pierre Arcand and interim Parti Québécois leader Pascal Bérubé.
Israeli Consul General David Levy read a message from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which was met with some murmurs when U.S. President Donald Trump was mentioned. U.S. Consul General Robert Thomas also attended.
In the House of Commons that day, Mount Royal MP Anthony Housefather said that what happened in Pittsburgh was so devastating because generations of Jews came to America to escape bigotry and find freedom.
“This is not supposed to happen in America. We should not need armed guards in the places we worship to protect us,” he said.
The Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City, where six worshippers were murdered by a gunman in 2017, reached out to the Jewish community. In an open letter of condolence, it states:
“The madness of men once again struck our Jewish neighbours of Pittsburgh and human brothers who were only praying in a sacred and untouchable place, which is the synagogue.
“This act of enormous gravity cannot leave us indifferent.… Today we understand very well the pain that Jewish families feel and we are wholeheartedly with them.”
Among the numerous expressions of support from many quarters is a touching handwritten note that Rabbi Alan Bright discovered at Shaare Zedek Congregation’s door on the night of the massacre.
Signed simply, “Your Muslim neighbours,” and accompanied by a rose, the note reads: “Please accept our sincere sympathies in the event of the tragedy in Pittsburgh. Your community is in our prayers in this difficult time.”
Touched almost to tears by the gesture, he planned on incorporating the note in a commemoration at the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce synagogue the following Shabbat. Then, he wants to frame the note and the professionally dried rose and hang them at the front entrance.
On Nov. 1, the Israeli, Palestinian and Syrian graduate students who are studying at the McGill University School of Social Work for a year have scheduled an event called “Standing Together in Indignation,” which will bring together Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy.
The students are the latest fellows of the International Community Action Network (ICAN), formerly known as the McGill Middle East Peace Program.
“Fuelled by a context which has reignited anti-Semitism to an alarming degree, and which has sparked hate crimes against Muslims, against blacks and against other minorities, we must rise in indignation rather than cower in fear,” wrote ICAN executive director Amal Elsana and academic director Jim Torczyner in the invitation.
The interdenominational Montreal Board of Rabbis is urging unity within the community in the face of rising anti-Semitism, saying in a press release that, “We need not add to that hatred with internal conflict and attempts to delegitimize one another.”