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Burakowski: What a wonderful world

A man kneels to light a candle beneath a police cordon outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oct. 27.. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images/JTA)

This weekend I experienced a very special Shabbat service. Exactly one week after 11 Jews were murdered in an act of terror and hate while praying in The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, thousands of Toronto Jews, who don’t usually go to synagogue on Saturday, went to experience a Shabbat service to show strength and solidarity. However, it was not only Jews who showed up at our synagogues. Muslims and people of other faiths also came out and stood shoulder to shoulder, literally, in the over-crowded temple to show their support of solidarity.

My sister and I attended the service at Temple Sinai. I don’t think they were expecting anywhere near the number of people that showed up. The foyer was packed with congregants who heard words from Rabbi Michael Dolgin, before entering the sanctuary for the morning service.

His words of remembering the dead and of moving forward were comforting. Standing beside Rabbi Dolgin were three men from the Muslim Danforth Centre, who came to be with us for this Shabbat morning. One of the men, stepped up to the microphone to speak. He talked about peace, about our faiths standing together to fight hate, about the sanctity of life. He talked about supporting the Jewish community through dealing with this senseless act and the rise of anti-Semitism, just as we supported the Muslim community when they suffered a similar act of terror and hate in the Quebec City mosque shooting last year. He specifically said that they were not there only to reciprocate, but to show how respectfully and caringly every one, regardless of religion or culture, can live in peace and support each other, and do our best to defeat hatred and evil.

While we were listening to these religious leaders speak these powerful words, other “rings of peace” were forming around many synagogues all over Toronto, and I suspect many places throughout the world.


There were two services and two bat mitzvahs happening at Temple Sinai. We chose to attend what we thought would be the smaller service, not in the main sanctuary. The caretakers were helped by congregants to add chairs all the way up the sides and the front and back to accommodate the crowd. Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg said he’d never seen that room filled to such a capacity before. People shared prayer books with the person beside them, so that everyone would be able to follow the service.

The cantor, Katie Oringel, who had a voice like an angel, strummed her guitar while singing Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World. She would sing one verse in English and follow it by the same verse in Hebrew. The tears began to flow as all the congregants sang along while gently swaying in unison to the sound of the music. We were totally absorbed by the depth of that moment.

The service was filled with very special moments like that. At the end of the service, Rabbi Mikelberg announced a speaker, Susan, the cousin of Joyce Fienberg, the Toronto-born woman who was one of the 11 killed.

Joyce fienbergSusan spoke of the kind, smart and caring person Joyce was. Joyce has much family and many ties here. Many of her cousins were in the room with us as Susan spoke. She continued with anecdotes of Joyce’s life and how she and her husband Steve travelled the world all the time but never missed one simcha – not a bar or bat mitzvah, not a birth or wedding. Joyce made sure family came first.

She was an academic and an organizer. She always made sure to see everyone when she came to Toronto and organized as many dinners as necessary to make that happen. She paid attention to every detail and quietly created perfect events making sure to keep everyone’s schedules and challenges in mind. She was selfless and thought of others first. Susan ended by saying when she left Pittsburgh, she held Joyce’s daughter-in-law, who told her, she could not imagine a world without Joyce in it. There was not a dry eye in the house.

As I left the sanctuary, I felt spiritually fulfilled. Besides seeing friends, neighbours and fellow Jews coming together in prayer and support, I thought of how the larger community of Toronto enveloped us in a virtual hug in our time of need, and I thought to myself, what a wonderful world.


For more in our #SolidarityShabbat series, please click here.