Standing with Pittsburgh: A Prayer Gathering for Shalom in Birmingham

The crowd began to gather at dusk in front of Temple Beth-El.
Photo by Lauren Bedford for Bham Now.

On a balmy late October evening, a huge crowd gathered at dusk near Birmingham’s Temple Beth-El. They came together in a show of solidarity, love, and resolve. This was in the wake of this past Saturday morning’s murder of 11 Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh.

The Gathering, A Sea of Support + Music

Al Cohn and his daughter. Photo by Sharron Swain for Bham Now.

We have been so touched to receive support from so many. We’ve heard from mosques, the LGBTQ community, bishops, priests, African-American churches . . . across race, gender, religion, we’ve been in a complete sea of support from Birmingham. It’s a bittersweet way to realize how strong our community is here.

Dr. Al Cohn, President of Temple Emanu-El

To begin the vigil, Temple Beth-El’s Rabbi Stephen Slater welcomed everyone. He expressed deep gratitude to all who came “to pray and to grieve together.” He especially thanked the first responders and police in Pittsburgh. And he thanked the Birmingham police for their support.

The crowd applauded Senator Doug Jones for his outreach to the organizers and attendance at the vigil. Senator Richard Shelby and Mayor Randall Woodfin both sent statements of support. Candidates for the upcoming midterm elections came to be a part of the evening as well.

The Birmingham Islamic Society sent this gift, offering blessings for all mankind. Photo by Sharron Swain for Bham Now.

Setting an intention of healing, Rabbi Slater reflected on what happened in Pittsburgh. “On Shabbat, the silence of worship was shattered by the crack of death, and we are all shaken to the core. Something broke this Shabbat. A sacred trust was betrayed. The trust that here in America we respect people of other faiths – and their right to worship – was broken. And for that, all of us are lessened. Tonight, we have gathered as a community to restore that trust. To enact our sacred commitment to each other as fellow Americans who will stand together and face down hatred when it rears its foul head.”

“This is how Jews think,” said Cantor Jessica Roskin earlier in the day. She pointed to this inscription on the side of Temple Emanu-El: “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” Photo by Sharron Swain for Bham Now.

Sarah Metzger is Temple Beth-el’s Music and Youth Director. As such, she led several songs throughout the evening which brought warmth and unity to the singing crowd.

A number of clergy of many denominations gathered in solidarity and love. These were just a few. (l-r) Rev. Katie Gilbert, First United Methodist Church with her daughter, Rev. Sally Allocca, East Lake United Methodist Church, Rev. Chris Hamlin, Tabernacle Baptist Church + UAB’s 1917 Clinic, and Rev. Jennifer Sanders, Beloved Community Church. Photo by Sharron Swain for Bham Now.

Remembering The Eleven, Mourning + Light

Cantor Jessica Roskin invited Dr. Jimmy Krell to light memorial candles. Each candle honored one of the dead from his home neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania.

Next, she asked the crowd to pin a black ribbon to their clothing “to symbolize the rending of your hearts.” She then sang Judaism’s memorial prayer, El Malei Rachamim. 

“My friends, we have lost worlds.” – Rabbi Moshe Rube, Knesseth Israel. Photo by Sharron Swain for Bham Now.

“Our sages tell us that one who saves a life has, in effect, saved an entire world,” said Rabbi Moshe Rube, of Knesseth Israel. “And by contrast, those that take a life destroy a world . . . My friends, we have lost worlds.”

“Today, we look to our fellow native Birminghamers and see the faces of love. The faces that prove to the world that anyone who fuels hate, evil and murder will always be outnumbered by the unified forces of brotherhood, by those that recognize and appreciate the world contained in each human being and who are ready to take up the tools to raise what was made low. We will respond to those that seek to destroy worlds with building worlds. For the eleven holy souls in heaven now, know this: for you, we will build. We will build.”

“The Torah is a tree of life to those who cling to it. All who uphold it are happy.” – Proverbs 3:18. This Torah scroll, housed at Temple Beth-el, was rescued from Prague, Czechoslovakia, during the Holocaust. Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill houses a similar Torah. Photo by Sharron Swain for Bham Now.

In his written remarks, Birmingham’s Mayor Randall Woodfin posed important questions. “How does one react to an incomprehensible act of hatred? What can we as individuals, as a society, as citizens of a country founded on the principles of liberty and justice do to calm the fears, heal the divisions, forge the collective sense of unity and purpose that will deliver us from the evils that plague our nation?”

Reverend J.R. Finney II, of Covenant Community Church, UCC in Center Point, spoke next. He brought the experience of “extravagant welcome,” and offered the greeting of shalom. In it, he included “my commitment to stand in solidarity with our Jewish community in prayer for our country pleading ‘How long, Adonai? How long, must we wait until this evil stops? Until we can respect each other’s personhood, differences, and worth?’”

Moving Forward

Rabbi Yossi Friedman of Chabad was the final speaker. He made everyone laugh with a memory from 35 years ago. At that time, he was a basketball player at Yeshivah High School in Pittsburgh. “I remember Tree of Life Synagogue. They were the only team we had a chance against. I prefer to remember Tree of Life Synagogue that way.” 

A small glimpse of the crowd as it gathered at dusk. Photo by Sharron Swain for Bham Now.

I look around tonight, and this is the America I prefer to see us as. This is who we are.

Rabbi Yossi Friedman

He recalled the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, saying that “he always told us of the important absolute need to turn hate and tears into positive action. When the forces of light and goodness encounter darkness and hate, without fail, light will prevail.”

“I encourage all people of goodwill everywhere to add in goodness and kindness to those around you, to those you know, and maybe especially to those you don’t know.” 

Maddie Usdan, a local high school student, with her Dad Stuart. Photo by Sharron Swain for Bham Now.

To me, being here means representing the Jewish faith. Saying that nothing can stop us through all the hardships we face. And that we stand strong together and are so loved by each other.

Maddie Usdan

Rabbi Friedman offered three ways to add goodness and kindness:

First, he invited everyone to participate in a Birmingham campaign (at www.charidy.com/respondwithlight ) that calls for people to do 1100 mitzvot, or good deeds, to honor those who died.

Second, he invited Jews everywhere to participate in a national effort to #showupforshabbat – to go to shul, temple, synagogue. 

And third, he encouraged Jews to put a mezuzah on the door, “especially the front door, because this is America, and we can … to demonstrate our pride and strength.”

The Prayer Walk

After two closing songs, Rabbi Slater encouraged everyone to find ways to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” He then invited everyone to conclude with a walk down Highland Avenue, from Temple Beth-El to Temple Emanu-El. This was a chance to take the words of the evening and begin to do something.

“It felt like my feet were praying.” – The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Photo by Sharron Swain for Bham Now.

To prepare everyone for the prayer walk, Rabbi Slater told of how the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, when he came to Alabama during the Civil Rights movement, said “it felt like my feet were praying.” He invited everyone to hold our cell phones high with flashlights on. He wanted to “give us each time to time to move together quietly, solemnly . . . to use time to think about what you will do, what we can do, to bring a stronger community, to preclude hate and to increase unity.”

A group of Unitarian Universalist friends came out for the vigil. Photo by Sharron Swain for Bham Now.

We just wanted to gather in solidarity with our Jewish siblings and friends to remind them that we are here. We are here to love one another, and be together. 

Rev. Julie Conrady, Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham

Although the reason for the gathering was terrible, the vigil was a beautiful, healing, and uplifting event. To see and to be a part of so many people from so many different walks of life gathering to mourn, to celebrate life in all its diversity, and to rededicate ourselves to bringing more light into the world was a gift. 


Event organizers included: Temple Beth-El, Temple Emanu-El, Knesseth Israel Synagogue, Chabad of Alabama, Birmingham Jewish Federation, Birmingham Jewish Foundation, Collat Jewish Family Services, Levite Jewish Community Center, N.E. Miles Jewish Day School, Birmingham Holocaust Education Center, and Faith in Action Alabama.