This Sacramento synagogue, firebombed 19 years ago, offers vision of hope after Pittsburgh massacre

B’Nai Israel offers hope after Pittsburgh massacre

B’Nai Israel offers vision of hope after Pittsburgh massacre
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B’Nai Israel offers vision of hope after Pittsburgh massacre

Starting with the hymn Hinei Ma Tov, about 1,200 people of all ages and faiths gathered at the Congregation B’nai Israel in Land Park Monday night to honor the 11 victims of the deadly shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Among the hundreds in attendance was Loril Tochterman, a 30-year member of the congregation who marvelled at the massive turnout.

“This shows a lot about our people and how our community comes together across the board,” she said. “It doesn’t matter the religion or anything. We will come together and be strong.”

For those gathered Monday evening, the hate-fueled attack in Pittsburgh recalled the 1999 firebombings started by white nationalists that set ablaze this local synagogue, as well as two others in the Sacramento area. Though no one died in those attacks, Rabbi Mona Alfi said the weekend shooting left the same indelible mark on her congregation — “the same shock,” Alfi said, “that it can happen in our country.”

“This kind of thing is always in the back of the minds” of Jewish families, said Rabbi Yossi Grossbaum of the Chabad Jewish Community Center in Folsom. “Even though it was on the other side of the country, and many people have never been to Pittsburgh, it’s felt deeply.”

Grossbaum said he was observing Shabbat on Saturday and did not check his phone or the news until the evening. After service, he had heard an “inkling” of reports, but it wasn’t until later that he learned the gravity of the situation.

Some members of the local Jewish community felt the effects of the shooting more personally, said Rabbi Reuven Taff of Arden-Arcade’s Mosaic Law Congregation. One member whose son recently moved to Pittsburgh learned through a text after Shabbat finished that his son was safe. Another had a nephew who lives in a special-needs group home next door to the Pittsburgh synagogue, and was safe after hiding in the basement.

“These were people killed because of their faith,” said Rabbi Mendy Cohen of the Chabad of Greater Sacramento, who organized a prayer service at his congregation Sunday. “We feel pain very strongly.”

The Pittsburgh shooting also recalled the same cooperation and outpouring of compassion from the larger Sacramento community that Alfi remembers helping the local synagogues rebuild after the 1999 firebomb attacks.

At Monday’s service, Mayor Darrell Steinberg, city council members Steve Hansen and Jay Schenirer, and Police Chief Daniel Hahn were all in attendance, along with members of different religious faiths, to condemn the killings, and speakers urged residents to find ways to bring more compassion into the world. Rabbis across Sacramento County remarked that they had seen groups of all faiths reach out to offer their condolences.

Earlier Monday, Taff said a Presbyterian minister came to his office to deliver 11 white roses.

“She said I want you to know it’s not just from me, it’s from the entire presbytery,” Taff said, putting a hand on the flowers sitting on his desk. “We were so moved by her and the presbytery’s kind gesture.”

The alleged gunman, Robert Bowers, appeared in court Monday, facing charges that include “obstruction of the free exercise of religious beliefs,” a federal hate crime. If convicted, Bowers could be sentenced to death.

Individuals identifying as Jewish represent about 2 percent of the U.S. population, but represent more than half of victims targeted by hate crimes due to religious bias, according to FBI data. The Anti-Defamation League has also reported increases in anti-Semitic incidents and online harassment.

Alfi said that on Saturday, members of her congregation heard the news of the shooting just before service began. Though it was disorienting and difficult to press on, Alfi said they celebrated a member’s bar mitzvah. The young man’s service “was about bringing kindness into the world,” and his plan is to partner with the Anti-Defamation League and start a “No Place for Hate” campus climate program at his school.

“His sermon ended up being very inspiring for us,” Alfi said. “Young adults like that will bring hope that the next generation will do better than ourselves.”

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