There weren't enough chairs to accommodate the 150 people that packed into Congregation Lev Shalom Saturday to honor the lives of the 11 Jewish victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting a week beforehand. But it didn’t matter -- many attendees stood for the hour-and-a-half service.
The Oct. 27 attacks at Tree of Life synagogue were personal for Lev Shalom’s Rabbi Mindie Snyder.
Snyder participated in Shabbat and holiday services at Tree of Life while she attended Carnegie Mellon University. “It played a big role in historic American Judaism,” she said of the large synagogue. Tree of Life, which has a history going back to 1860s, started out Orthodox and has become more Conservative (middle ground between traditional and progressive Judaism).
The Jewish reform movement in the U.S. can trace its roots to Pittsburgh and Tree of Life. Snyder said her time there was pivotal in her decision to become a female Rabbi. “I prayed in that beautiful sacred space, which is now a hideous crime scene,” she wrote in Lev Shalom's November newsletter.
For the Saturday service at Snyder’s synagogue, which is located on the east side of Flagstaff not far from Bushmaster Park, it wasn’t just the regular Lev Shalom members that showed up. Many were community members that wanted to honor the victims’ lives and show their camaraderie. Others were Snyder’s friends, practitioners of all different religions who knew about her ties to Tree of Life and came to support her and her congregation.
“We take comfort in our relationship with Jews and non-Jews, in this diverse community where peace is possible and combating hate is now our holy call to action,” Snyder said as part of her opening statements Saturday.
Snyder is the founder of Soulfriends, a 3-year-old interfaith Flagstaff group attended by Jewish, Protestant, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Mormon and Unitarian leaders alike. One of Soulfriends' values is uniting in times of need.
Father Philip Shaw of the Kingman United Pastoral Association donned a yamaka with his clerical collar as he spoke about how spreading peace is expected in all religions, and is important while facing anti-semitism, Islamaphobia and racism.
Pastor Lynn Bartlow of Trinity Heights United Methodist church on Fourth Street spoke about coming together in times of tragedy. “What are we about but to find help from one another?” she said.
“Being supportive is an extension of our ongoing solidarity,” said Pastor Kurt Fangmeier, who preaches at Living Christ Lutheran Church on US-89.
Although Fangmeier described himself as initially being “numb” when he heard the news about what some are calling the worst crime of Jewish people in the U.S., he knew he needed to be present. He offered prayers for the victims during sermons at his own church, and reached out to Snyder, asking how he could help her and her congregation too.
In an emotional moment during the service, the pastor clutched the rabbi’s hand as he spoke to the crowd.
“I’m glad we are all able to gather together here today, in the midst of our differences, in the midst of our challenges, and to be able to speak a word of light and peace, in the face of death, in the face of hate,” he said with watery eyes.
Tissues were passed around from one service member to another. “There wasn’t a dry eye at any given time, including my own,” Snyder said. In addition, the Rabbi also received texts and emails from people watching her service on Lev Shalom’s Live Stream exclaiming how moved they were. “Tears were shed not only in the sanctuary but across the country and the world by those watching.”
Fangmeier said although there has been violence among different religious groups in the last 500 years, it is important to acknowledge the dark history and see that the times have changed. “We have reached a different place in our relationship together,” he said.
Snyder said she felt blessed because of the high diversity of involvement at the service.
“The impact of this tragedy is affecting everybody,” she said. “We can move heaven and earth away from the rhetoric of violence into an opportunity for harmony.”
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While Congregation Lev Shalom held local services, the Rabbis of Chabad Flagstaff, located near Northern Arizona University, traveled to Brooklyn, N.Y., to take part in the world’s largest rabbinic gathering.
The annual event, aimed at strengthening Jewish awareness and practices worldwide, held a special ceremony led by rabbis from Pittsburgh. Rabbis Dovie Shapiro and Shmulik Moscowitz were among 5,600 other Orthodox rabbis who prayed and sang solemnly for the Tree of Life victims.
“Fellow rabbis from around the world were all sharing how much love and how many messages of support they were receiving after the Pittsburgh shooting from people they had never met,” Moscowitz said. “That was extremely powerful and beautiful to see how many friends and how much support the Jewish community has.”
The rabbis also took part in conferences while at the gathering, with topics including combating anti-semitism, counseling and guiding congregations in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh attacks, synagogue security and more.
With hate crimes against religious and other groups in the country becoming a sad reality, more and more religious leaders are figuring out how to protect their places of worship.
Snyder extended her appreciation to the Flagstaff Police Department for monitoring outside the synagogue during her service.
Moscowitz said that they take security very seriously at the Chabad. He added that for their new 12,500-square-foot Jewish Community Center opening in spring, they are “working very closely with security experts to put systems into place.”
Living Christ Lutheran Church has received materials from insurance companies on the matter of safety, Fangmeier said. He has been attacked outside the church, and said there was one incident inside the church that made him nervous. Having a protective weapon or law enforcement present at services will be brought up in a conversation he will soon be having with his church staff and members.
Besides taking safety precautions, religious leaders in Flagstaff continue to unify in peace, spreading goodness to the community and collaborating in even bigger ways.
After Chabad Flagstaff’s local memorial service and “United with Pittsburgh” Shabbat dinner event for NAU students, Moscowitz got his congregation involved with a global Mitzvah campaign.
“We will be continuing over the coming weeks by bringing more light to the world through acts of goodness and kindness,” he said.
Lev Shalom and Living Christ plan to have a joint presentation in spring to clear misinformation between the Lutheran and Jewish communities and “build better bonds,” Fangmeier said.
On Nov. 15, Soulfriends will hold its third annual Thanksgiving event where members of any religion are invited to come to the Aquaplex and participate in songs, stories and blessings from different traditions.
“It takes a lot to put a stop to the epidemic of gun violence and hatred of each other,” Snyder said. “We are joining forces and coming together as a unified field.”
Newly elected Flagstaff vice-mayor and city councilmember Adam Shimoni was born in Israel and explained in an email that he has experienced anti-semitism in the past.
"The principles of mutual respect, integrity and communication are what allow organizations to build peace abroad, but they are also the key values necessary to bring people together in Flagstaff as well," he said.
Shimoni added that it was powerful seeing the community unite over what happened in Pittsburgh and he hopes to continue working with leaders in Flagstaff to bring people together.
"We need each other today more than ever," he said. "We are all in this together."