Welcoming the stranger: A Christian worships with Tree of Life congregants
On Oct. 27, 2018, a gunman entered a synagogue in Pittsburgh and shot 11 people dead while they were worshipping.
Almost a year later, Jews from that same synagogue enter Pittsburgh’s Calvary Episcopal Church to celebrate the High Holy Days. They come from Tree of Life-Or L’Smicha, one of three congregations that lost lives in the shooting. They are here because the church has the space needed for the occasion and invited them to use it. They pass by police details and bag searches and anti-bleeding kits. They pack into pews, and I welcome them. A member of Calvary, I have volunteered to serve as an usher, and now on Sunday, Sept. 29, the Erev (“eve of”) Rosh Hashanah service is about to start.
I spot Rabbi Jeffrey Myers near the ark, a large wooden wardrobe on wheels with three Torah scrolls inside. I’ve read about how he called for help while the shooter rampaged, how he heard his congregants die around him. The rabbi wears a shawl and a white robe. I walk up to him and introduce myself.
“Welcome,” he says. Which is strange, because we are standing beneath my sanctuary’s carved wooden cross, now shrouded out of respect for our guests. But since tonight Tree of Life is worshipping here, I am the visitor, or maybe, in a way, we all are. A security detail swept the entire building beforehand with sniffing dogs. It is strange to be in my own church, and to show ID to get my greeter’s badge. But these are strange times.
Stranger still, I know the cantor, Sarah Nadler, who opens the service next to Rabbi Myers in her sky-blue shawl. She’s been singing in the Calvary Choir with me for four years. She’s one of our star soloists, a professional musician hired to lead our soprano section. But I never knew that she was Jewish. I recognize her pure clear tone, but not the Hebrew she’s chanting. No matter. The rabbi tells us what page to follow. I hear familiar phrases — Psalm 27: “Teach me your ways, O Lord.” As we recite the psalm’s words about hiding and shelter, I picture Rabbi Myers barricading himself in a bathroom, calling 911 and tracking the shooter’s movements.
When the massacre happened, I felt numb. I could not square the images online with the synagogue I passed by on my bicycle. Perhaps that’s why I’m here — to stand among those most directly affected, to learn how to grieve and how to live. By allowing me to join them, they are teaching me the meaning of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.
The next morning, I return to usher on Rosh Hashanah. Irwin Harris, co-organizer for High Holy Days, welcomes me. He keeps spare white yarmulkes folded like handkerchiefs in his suit pocket. I sit next to his wife Rose, who whispers explanations as we go. Nearby, a woman with a seeing-eye dog at her feet slides her hand over pages of Braille. Irwin strides up the aisles with bottled water to keep everyone hydrated in the heat. When I collect prayer books I encounter Moe Lebow, the congregation’s senior member, who will turn 100 on Nov. 16. He’s pushing a walker and grinning. “We’ve got a great shul,” he tells me. “We’ll be back. I pray every day.”
Days later, I return for Yizkor on Yom Kippur. Yizkor means remember. Rabbi Myers shares a new martyrology he has created for the 11 slain, sings for them in Hebrew. I shiver when we say Psalm 23 and walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The rabbi invites us to greet one another, and suddenly Irwin finds me and embraces me. Later, when I try to return the white yarmulke to him, he waves me off. Keep it as a souvenir, he says.
After Yizkor, a man carries the Torah up to me. “Kiss it,” he says, touching it with his fingers and bringing them to his lips. I do the same. As if in our touching and remembering we are knitting the limbs of the dead back together again. Something in me breaks, and I feel naked grief among these strangers who are my friends, who remind me who I am, who I can be.
In a sermon, Rabbi Myers says that Jews are people of joy. He urges us to be “drowners in love,” to drown out H, love’s opposite whose name he will not speak. He asks us to show our support for rebuilding Tree of Life. He asks us to stand if we are all in. Though I’m not part of his congregation, not part of his faith, I’m moved by his challenge. I stand up. At the end of the service, he sees me, and calls me by my name.