By Shirley Hawkins
SOUTH LOS ANGELES — They came in a show of solidarity.
With the senseless shootings of Oct. 27 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, still on everybody’s mind, dozens of African-American and Jewish worshippers gathered at First AME Church Nov. 1 for a Tree of Life Interfaith Prayer Service.
In partnership with county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and the Temple Isaiah synagogue in Los Angeles, an interfaith clergy congregated at First AME to offer words of comfort and healing to the attendees. Still shocked and saddened by the tragedy, those in attendance sang, clasped hands and prayed for tolerance.
“We came to pray, not to be divided as sisters and brothers in faith,” said First AME Senior Minister J. Edgar Boyd as he addressed the congregation. “When one suffers and sustains pain, it affects us all. We have to bring our hands and hearts together to foster healing and hope — the kind of hope that sustains life. We pray for the 11 lives lost in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the two lives lost in Kentucky.”
Recognized as the worst mass shooting of Jews in the history of the United States, the murders were perpetrated by 46-year-old Robert Gregory Bowers, who shot and killed 11 people and injured seven. Bowers was arrested and charged with 29 federal crimes and 36 state crimes.
Federal prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty against the 46-year-old truck driver, who authorities say expressed his hatred of Jews and later told police, “I just want to kill Jews” and “All these Jews need to die.”
Rabbi Zoe Klein-Miles, senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, commented on hate crimes that have been trending upwards in the country.
“There’s been a large increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the past year,” she said. “I would attribute it to giving more air to racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism from the highest offices.”
Pausing, she added, “It’s very easy to hate in the abstract and very hard to love in the abstract and that’s why it’s important for us to come together and to forge closer relationships. We may have been cut down, but we will still blossom and live.”
Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin, who also attended the prayer service, said he was saddened when he heard about the massacre.
“I felt grief, anger and mourning after hearing about the shootings,” he said. “I wish I could say that I was surprised, but the same people who hate Jews are equal-opportunity haters. They hate immigrants, the LGBT community and blacks.
“I’m the son and grandson of Holocaust survivors and what my grandparents imparted to me is that we must stand up to all sorts of bigotry and hatred,” Galperin added. “Love and goodness triumphs. It is a tree of life for those who hold fast to us.”
Ridley-Thomas expressed his sympathies and also delivered heartfelt condolences from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and hiscolleague, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.
“We are here to pray, worship and heal in the face of trying circumstances,” Ridley-Thomas said. “Lives would have been saved if this hateful madman had not had these weapons of mass destruction.
“We join against racism and anti-Semitism because we are stronger together. This is why we worship — to stand against anyone who threatens our constitutional rights.”
U.S. Rep. Karen Bass also attended the prayer service and extended her deepest sympathies.
“I am honored and grateful to honor the innocent lives that were cut short last week,” she said. “It’s good that we come together to dialogue in difficult times. We are at a crossroads in this country — not only in the country, but in the world. I am inspired by the solidarity and connection that we share tonight and that we come together in tragedy to mourn those we have lost.”
Bass said she was struck by the irony that several of the elderly Jewish congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh had survived the Holocaust but tragically lost their lives in the shooting.
“I was touched by the 90 year old and the other elderly victims who were able to survive the Holocaust — but suddenly their lives were snatched from them.”
“We must stand against hate, bullying and persecution wherever it happens — on social media, television or online,” said Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction. “We teach our students that name calling, bullying and violence are just wrong. We teach them to treat others with respect and with tolerance. We must work to achieve a more tolerant society and that’s how we can honor those who lost their lives.”
Prayers of solidarity by the interfaith clergy were delivered by Rev. Terry Brown Sr. of Liberty Baptist Church, Rev. Hoses Collins of the City of Refuge, Rabbi Deborah Schmidt of Cedars Sinai Medical Center, and Rev. John Cager of Ward AME Church.
Singer Craig Taubin provided a song of courage and perseverance and roused the crowd while strumming his guitar and the FAME Freedom Choir lifted hearts by singing “We Shall Overcome” and “We Come This Far by Faith” as the congregation tightly held hands.
The congregants were obviously moved by the service, which lasted for approximately two hours.
Mohammad Alrani, an immigrant who came to the United States after experiencing persecution in his home country of Iraq, brought his wife and three children to the service.
“These shootings were outrageous,” he said. “It’s not something that we anticipate will happen in this nation that was founded on tolerance and religious freedom.” Pausing, he added solemnly, “It’s up to us to stand up together against hatred.”