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Rodef Shalom hosts special Hanukkah dinner with Tree of Life congregants

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Paul Guggenheimer | Tribune-Review
A special prayer at Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh on December 7, 2018.

The sixth day of Hanukkah took on added meaning Friday as congregants from the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill joined those at Rodef Shalom in Oakland for a combined service and special Hanukkah Shabbat dinner.

The event was held nearly six weeks to the day since 11 people at Tree of Life were killed while worshipping, when a gunman rushed in firing shots and shouting anti-Semitic hate speech.

Since the massacre, Tree of Life congregants have been holding their Friday night and Saturday morning services at Rodef Shalom.

“This is the first opportunity we’ve taken to combine what we’re doing concurrently because of the holiday,” said Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom. “So Hanukkah, which is a celebration of light overcoming darkness, has given us this opportunity to gather together to light the candles and support and celebrate. People really appreciate the opportunity to gather in larger numbers.

”I think there is a lot of feeling that we want to be able to do more or be part of something that will push back against the frustrations and the violence and the anger and the hurt and the senselessness and sense of loss.”

As part of that pushback and effort to find some healing, the congregations invited renowned Jewish poet and liturgist Alden Solovy to present a special Hanukkah prayer for Pittsburgh at the combined services.

Solovy, who lives in Jerusalem, was interested in coming to Pittsburgh as soon as he learned of the tragic events that unfolded at Tree of Life on Oct. 27. A scholar in residence here in two previous visits to Pittsburgh, Solovy says he had an opportunity to walk around the Tree of Life building when he returned to the city earlier this week.

“I was truly overwhelmed by being in the presence of all of the outpouring of love for this community,” Solovy said. “They’ve put posted notes up on the wall and people are writing messages and seeing the tributes was remarkably healing and heart wrenching at the same time.”

At Rodef Shalom this week, blackboards and chalk were placed in the lobby where anyone who passed by had the opportunity to write a Hanukkah message for “the light of the community.” Solovy took the material and incorporated it into a new prayer, which he read to the congregations during the combined services, including this excerpt:

“That light shines now in Pittsburgh.

The ancient light, 2,000 years old,

Shimmering across millennia from the dedication of our ancient home,

Mingles with the glow of the lamps we light tonight,

Our rededication to:

Family and friends,

Patience, Empathy, Sympathy.

Health and sobriety.

Meeting neighbors.

Learning from each other.

Petting more animals.

Hugging.

Listening.

Breathing.

We rededicate ourselves to kindness,

Building a more peaceful world,

Combating hate,

Acts of compassion to one another.”

The moving, hour-long Shabbat Services included a call for the names of friends and loved ones in need of healing.

One of the names offered up was that of Pittsburgh Police SWAT Officer Timothy Matson, who remains the only injured victim hospitalized after being shot multiple times in the attack on the Tree of Life congregation.

Among the Tree of Life congregants attending the combined services was 80-year-old, Hungarian-born Judah Samet who survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as a child and who managed to avoid the synagogue massacre after arriving a few minutes late to service.

“It’s a little strange. This service is a little different from the one I’m used to.” said Samet. “But still I am very appreciative that they have welcomed us in this way.”

“I think it was a great experience for all of us,” said fellow Tree of Life congregant Sharon Tarter. “It was initially a little bit difficult to come here. It’s a completely different environment. It’s very nice that Rodef Shalom invited Tree of Life to participate in this. And they were very welcoming.”

Rodef Shalom congregant and board member Peter Rosenfeld said he was very encouraged by the turnout, which he estimated to be more than 200 people.

“This is remarkable,” Rosenfeld said. “It would have been unlikely that we would have done this under normal circumstances. We all live in the same area, but we exist in different realities, different silos. But now we are starting to see each other as fellow members of the same community that need each other, and we can build on this.”

Alden Solovy says he sees Friday night’s event as being a part of the healing process for a community that is hurting.

“We need to just keep coming together, the Jewish community of these neighborhoods, the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, the entire Jewish community of the world, as well as the non-Jewish community,” Solovy said. “The Pittsburgh community, itself, has been amazing.

“So, the more times we’re out together as humans, the better and the faster the healing will go.”

Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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