Community vigil mourns Charleston shooting victims

Rabbi Susan Talve and Rev. Melissa Bennett listen as KB Frazier sings during a vigil for the victims of the Charleston church shootings, held at the Jewish Federation on June 18. Photo: Andrew Kerman

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Community members gathered in the atrium of the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building Thursday night for a somber remembrance of those killed the previous evening in a bloody shooting rampage at a Charleston, South Carolina church.

“We’ve taken the time to make a little space to mourn, to respond in the holiest way we know just by coming together,” Rabbi Susan Talve told a subdued crowd during the brief event, which was marked by speeches, prayers and song.

Suspect Dylann Roof is in custody after allegedly gunning down nine people during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Based on statements by the suspect, authorities believe Wednesday’s attack on the predominantly black house of worship by the white suspect was racially motivated.

Much of Thursday’s vigil saw participants expressing frustration at racism, delivering prayers against hatred and calling for action to stop future shooting sprees.

Andrew Rehfeld, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation, made reference to the gathering’s proximity to the St. Louis Holocaust Museum.

“That museum tells a story of the result of hate, bias, prejudice and racism that afflicted us as a Jewish people,” he said, noting the importance of speaking up for any community that comes under assault.

Rev. C. Jessel Strong of the African Methodist Episcopal Church recounted talking with Rehfeld before the vigil.

“Andrew came up to me and said we have to stop meeting like this,” said Strong, who also chairs the cabinet of the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis. “It was just a little while ago that I came to JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council) and stated that I stood in solidarity with the people of Israel for the bombing attacks that were taking place.”

He said he felt even more deeply about such suffering now that tragedy had struck his own “church family.”

“My heart cries out. It cries out that we live in a world where there is not love for one another,” he said. “My heart cries out because it doesn’t have to be this way — people hating one another.”

Strong quoted the late Rodney King, a victim of a 1991 beating by police, which later spawned riots in Los Angeles.

“I say to us as we face difficult days ahead, can’t we all just get along, learn to love one another, learn how to appreciate one another,” he said. “We all have red blood. We are all God’s people.”

Rabbi Andrea Goldstein of Congregation Shaare Emeth expressed despair and deep sadness.

“It is too hard for me to pray for something as grand or as elusive as peace or justice on a day like this,” she said. “I pray for brokenness. I pray that our hearts will break a little more than they have been so that we will feel more deeply the pain that is in our world so that we will not remain silent or complacent.”

She urged people to mourn for the victims as if they were family.

“As Rabbi Talve said today, after the tears, we return to work to make the world a little closer to the world we want it to be,” she said.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham invoked the Torah portion of Korach and spoke about why people are always born through a pairing of one male and one female.

“The Talmud answers that it is so no one can say to another, ‘My father is greater than your father. My mother is greater than your mother,’” he said. “We are all brothers and sisters. We are all one family.”

He looked forward to the future and envisioned how a better day might look.

“There will be peace, but it will only come on the day we recognize together that we are indeed one family,” he said.

Rev. Karen Anderson, pastor of the Ward Chapel AME Church in North County, gave a deeply emotional talk which, like Rehfeld’s, made mention of the Holocaust Museum, which she said reminded her of similar facilities commemorating apartheid and the civil rights movement.

“The stories aren’t really different,” she said. “They are stories of hatred and evil and things that we cannot explain to one another. Someone asked ‘How do you make sense of it?’ I said I don’t try anymore.”

She made note of what she felt were the most important of the Ten Commandments — those which command love of God and love of thy neighbor.

“The key to that is that we must first love ourselves,” she said. “Until we love self, we cannot love anybody else. It is my deep belief that people who commit such atrocities have a self-hatred they don’t recognize, a loathing for themselves.”

Anderson prayed to keep humans on the path to righteousness and justice and said she knew God did not wish a homogeneous “Stepford universe” where all looked and acted alike.

“You desired a world of diversity, as diverse as the flowers of the fields, as diverse as the birds of the air, as diverse as the mammals that walk the earth and the fish that swim in the ocean,” she said.

Anderson asked that the Lord “disturb our spirits.”

“Disturb us so much, God, that you release our tongues from the roof of our mouths so that we cry out to you and ask that God have mercy,” she said. “Release our voices, God, that we speak in halls of power, places of privilege.”

Talve read the names of the victims along with information about them. Rabbi James Stone Goodman of Neve Shalom, and KB Frazier, a congregant at CRC, both sang at the event.

Rev. Melissa Bennett delivered a mournful performance of the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” which she said was a originally written to communicate coded messages to slaves planning escape. She said the song had special meaning when she sang it with others after the shooting.

“As we sang it over and over again, I began to think of the significance of how we are wading through some very difficult waters now,” she said. “We are wading through the tide of this great racial divide, confronting it again and again.”

Thoughts on security

 Meanwhile, the gunman’s tactic of pretending to be part of a Bible study group seems destined to reinforce a continued dilemma among Jewish organizations that strive to navigate the conundrum between welcoming a stranger and fearing him. 

“The truth is that we really grapple with it,” said Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, at Bais Abraham Congregation. “I really grapple with it on a personal level.”

While Jewish organizations and rabbis contacted by the Light were reluctant to reveal specific security measures, a few did share some general thoughts — and frustrations — as they attempt to greet new faces with open arms while at the same time guarding against potential threats from outsiders. 

“I wish I knew the magical formula for that,” said Neiss, who noted how frightening it was that the Charleston attacker evidently didn’t force his way in but rather entered with others and sat quietly for an hour before beginning his murder spree. “The congregation welcomed him in as a stranger that wanted to be with them.”

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose of Congregation B’nai Amoona said his synagogue does take precautions but tries to make them unobtrusive so people feel both welcome and safe.