“It’s been something,” said Rabbi Joshua Lief. He was actually sitting down for a brief moment at the end of a week that included the shock of a deadly shooting at a nearby synagogue, an interfaith memorial for more than 500 and funeral services for an esteemed judge that drew several hundred more to Temple Shalom.
Yet, Lief was referring not to a hectic schedule, but to an abundance of comfort. Beginning Oct. 27, the day 11 Pittsburgh worshipers (including a local woman’s aunt) were killed, Lief said area residents have showered the local Jewish community with love.
“It’s been very comforting and reassuring … to know that we are not alone and that this community cares for us,” said Lief, seated not far from a table overflowing with flowers area residents have left at the temple. He said such gifts, phone calls and even donations have flowed in each day since the shooting.
On Sunday, about 500 people from the greater Ohio Valley also attended a memorial and unity service that featured comments by Lief and scripture readings by clergy from multiple Christian churches. “The crowd was quite diverse — age, religious background, race, socio-economic status,” Lief said, noting many had traveled to attend. Temple Shalom, West Virginia’s oldest synagogue at 170 years of age, is among only a handful of Jewish houses of worship in the state.
It was gratifying, as a rabbi, to see such an outpouring, but Lief said it may have affected him most as a dad.
“They’re aware,” he said of his daughters, ages 5 and 8, understanding that being a religious minority makes everything from holiday concerts to eating matzoh sandwiches in their school lunches during Passover an issue of Jewish identity.
“What I said to my girls, in the aftermath of this attack, was … you don’t have to be scared to come to temple, and you don’t have to be scared to be Jewish. While there are bad people in the world, there are many, many more good people.” He added a condition that was basically a leap of faith, unsure, at that point, if the unity service would be well attended. “See if Daddy’s right on Sunday.”
It was a personal blessing and relief, therefore, to have more than 20 ordained ministers show up in a crowd so large it spilled out of Temple Shalom’s sanctuary into a fellowship area, the lobby, a small stage and the lawn outside at least two doors that were thickly flanked by police.
“Wheeling is a good place,” Lief said Friday, smiling at the memory.
Proud that his city came alongside his temple during a time of sorrow — the proximity of the shooting was such that family and friend connections between Temple Shalom and Tree of Life are “inestimable” — Lief is now looking forward to another type of gathering.
At 7 p.m. Nov. 21, Temple Shalom will host the city’s first interfaith Thanksgiving service in several years. In the works since summer, the service is a return of a tradition that the hometown rabbi remembers from childhood. Given the shooting tragedy, Lief suspects this service will have a special poignancy no one could have anticipated when it was being planned.
“The sad reality … is that that could have been any of us,” Lief said. “An attack on any house of worship is an attack on every person of faith.”
He said area clergy have embraced the joint Thanksgiving service’s return. Vance Presbyterian is already scheduled to host the event in 2019.
“It would be great to support each other in good times,” Lief said of fostering a spirit of unity and community. “To give thanks for all of our blessings seems absolutely appropriate.”
• Nora Edinger writes from Wheeling, W.Va., where she is part of a three-generation, two-species household. A long-time journalist, she now writes in a variety of print and e-venues, including her JOY Journal blog at noraedinger.com. Her first work of fiction, a Christian beach read called “Dune Girl,” is available on Amazon Kindle.