I walked into the synagogue, and everything was peaceful. Quiet. I found myself a little surprised, though I confess I did not really give it much thought before heading in. I was there for a reason, and it was time to get to work.
I was visiting beautiful Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation (IHC) on October 28th, 2018, only one day after 11 people were murdered at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA during Shabbat morning worship. I work for the Union for Reform Judaism, and for the previous several months, my colleagues had diligently planned for a Movement wide “Day of Leadership Learning” community education event. Temple board members would be gathering at sites throughout North America to watch a live streamed program to learn and talk about the joy that can be found in temple board service.
I walked through the clean, expansive lobby of IHC, and could not help but to reflect on the events of the last 24 hours. I had been relaxing at home on Saturday morning when I saw an alert on my phone that there had been a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. I could tell right away this was a serious event. Though we as a Jewish organization do our best to avoid work calls on Shabbat, it became immediately clear there were conversations to be had. There was work to be done.
After a long, painful day, the decision was made to move forward with our plans for the “Day of Leadership Learning” scheduled for the next day. We would find comfort in community. Together we would mourn and reflect, and then we would get to the work of learning effective ways to lead our synagogues. We would explore ways to strengthen the very institution someone had just tried to destroy through a short burst of violence and tragedy the previous day. People may choose not to attend, and that would be their choice. The conversation may turn away from governance and focus instead on loss, confusion and sorrow, and that would be fine. We would hold the event.
I arrived IHC, and there was a Sheriff’s van in the parking lot. To make members and visitors feel safe, many congregations provided enhanced security after the horrific shooting. I was warmly greeted by the police officer, and then I was welcomed by the staff and clergy of IHC. We set up for the event, and people began to arrive.
I did my best to personally greet everyone who arrived, and express deep appreciation for their presence. Some of us acknowledged the event of the day before, and some just got a cup of coffee and some nosh. We could not deny the sadness in the room, and I could not deny the bravery of every single person who chose to attend a synagogue event the day after a synagogue shooting.
Though the meeting had been diligently planned for several months before, plans were changed the night before, and we decided instead to start off in a way that would acknowledge the tragic events of the day before, and memorialize those who lost their lives just wanting to pray, to spend a little time with their sacred community.
We began with a live presentation from the Pittsburgh community. As soon as the faces of the rabbis appeared on the screen, with the faces of Pittsburgh community members behind them, a palpable feeling spread through the room that everything was going to be okay. Yes, there would be pain, tears and sadness ahead, but we would experience those things with the support of people throughout our Movement. We would share our tears. We would share our strength. We would continue to gather together. We recited the names of those whose lives were lost the day before. Then, somehow, we got to work.
Our guest speaker for the day was Joan Garry whose firm helps to strengthen non-profit leadership. As her website states, “Non-profits are messy. Non enough money. Too many cooks. An abundance of passion.” Joan knows non-profits. Joan knows temples. Joan knows how boards work. As soon as she began to speak, her passion and her expertise were clear, and our people were sharply focused and engaged. The moment Joan began to speak, our Movement began to move forward.
The tightly programmed day was filled with constructive activities, meaningful conversation and opportunities for connection.
- How might you convince someone to serve on your board using only six words?
- How is the time at your board meetings spent now?
- What would be a better way to spend time at your board meetings?
- What small experiments could you do at your congregation?
- Who would be involved with your small experiments, and how would you gauge success or failure?
The day came to an end, right on schedule, and sadly I had to rush out to catch a flight to get home. I could not help but to notice though that as I left people were still talking. Congregational teams were taking good ideas home, plans were made for people who just met that day to continue their conversations and connection.
We came together the day after a tragedy we are still trying make sense of. We as a people, as a Movement and as a nation are shaken and sad. But we came together, and we simply began to talk. We talked about how to strengthen our boards and our congregations. We grounded ourselves in Torah and a tangible sense of community. We left at the end of the day feeling strengthened, emboldened and ready to get to work. Strengthened by who we are. Strengthened by what we do. Strengthened by our community.
Joyce Fienburg, 75-year-old, of Oakland
Richard Gottfried, 65-years-old, of Ross Township
Rose Mallinger, 97-years-old, of Squirrel Hill
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66-years-old, of Edgewood
Cecil Rosenthal, 59-years-old, of Squirrel Hill
David Rosenthal, 54-years old, of Squirrel Hill
Bernice Simon, 84-years-old, of Wilkinsburg
Sylvan Simon, 86-years-old, of Wilkinsburg
Daniel Stein, 71-years-old, of Squirrel Hill
Melvin Wax, 88-years-old, of Squirrel Hill
Irving Younger, 69-years-old, of Mt. Washington