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Wendy Cohan: Peace, light & love from Montana

| Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, 8:03 p.m.
A Pittsburgh Police officer walks past the Tree of Life synagogue and a memorial of flowers and stars Oct. 28.
A Pittsburgh Police officer walks past the Tree of Life synagogue and a memorial of flowers and stars Oct. 28.

I grew up in Saltsburg, 40 miles from where a shooter murdered 11 people Oct. 27 in Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life synagogue.

I attended United Methodist Church, and our town also supported a Lutheran, a Presbyterian church, a Pentecostal church, a Church of Christ and a Catholic church full of Polish and Italian immigrants. But, there wasn’t a synagogue for miles in any direction.

Now, I live in Missoula, Mont., which supports many of these same places of worship, along with an Episcopal church, the Open Way Mindfulness Center and the Har Shalom synagogue. We’re pretty big on interfaith collaboration in Missoula, so it was no surprise that in less than 24 hours, Rabbi Naomi Levy (Laurie Franklin) had organized a memorial for those 11 souls.

A few hours after absorbing the terrible news, I knew that I wanted to recognize these deaths, and to take some tangible action to push back the darkness, even though, despite my last name, I am not Jewish. It just felt, unequivocally, like the right thing to do.

In a driving rain, I pulled up to Har Shalom, an unremarkable square building, and hurried inside. The foyer was crowded — with dozens of people, long tables full of information on social justice and immigrants’ rights, and an overflowing donation box for our local food pantry. I squeezed my way inside and found a seat.

Rabbi Laurie began the service with a song based on Isaiah 2:4: “Nation shall not raise sword against nation, nor shall they learn war ever again.”

True to the interfaith spirit in the room, she remarked that, “We meet today on Salish ground,” Missoula’s historical Native American tribal territory, and followed that up with a bold yet simple statement: “We are all one people.”

Together, this diverse collection of interfaith supporters stumbled through the Hebrew of “Limnot Yameinu” (from Psalm 91) led by Rabbi Laurie on her guitar, humming when we lost the words. The service proceeded quickly into its heart, the lighting of memorial candles by nine interfaith community leaders and two of their young children.

Eleven people, 11 candles, 11 prayers for the dead. When the candles were lit, filling the space with warm, golden light, we spoke together the names of the dead. I made it past brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal and as far as Sylvan Simon, age 86, but started to weep as I read the name of his wife, Bernice, age 84. The two were married in the Tree of Life synagogue. In 1965, Sylvan reportedly held the heavy door open for Bernice, and the two still held hands during services.

In the Jewish tradition, congregants say the Kaddish prayers for loved ones who have passed to show that they continue to praise God even as they mourn their loss. In this small synagogue in a small town in the Rocky Mountains, we were far from Pittsburgh. But, as Rabbi Laurie asked, simply, “How can we not say Kaddish?”

The Kaddish chosen for the service was written by Marge Piercy, and it contains the following passage: “Look around us, search above us, below, behind. We stand in a great web of being joined together. Let us praise, let us love the life we are lent.”

Words of peace, light, fear, and darkness were spoken throughout the service, but the word mentioned or perhaps invoked most often was love.

Rabbi Laurie concluded with the song “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu” by Mosh Ben Ari, featuring the lyrics “Od yavo shalom aleinu ve’al kulam” — “Peace will come upon us, yet, and upon everyone.”

Wendy Cohan, a nurse and author, was born in Latrobe and raised in Saltsburg.

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