“We will say, ‘Not here.’ Not in Evesham Township, not in our town, not in New Jersey, and not in these United States of America.”
Those were the words of Congregation Beth Tikvah’s Rabbi Nathan Weiner as he welcomed hundreds to an interfaith service of solidarity held Tuesday at his synagogue.
The event was held in the wake of the mass shooting that occurred at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh during Shabbat morning services on Oct. 27, where a gunman shouting anti-Semitic remarks killed 11 and injured six others.
As more and more members of the community continued to file into Beth Tikvah before Tuesday’s event, members of the congregation rushed to set up additional seating, until finally there were no more chairs available, and those who arrived closer to the event’s advertised 7:30 p.m. start time had to stand for the service.
Looking out to the crowd, Weiner described a group mourning the loss of life, while, at the same time, encountering its own vulnerability.
Yet the evening was mostly filled with prayer, songs and messages of tolerance, all led by various religious leaders of different faiths from the Evesham community and greater area.
Religious leaders in attendance included representatives of Marlton United Methodist Church, Temple Beth El in Hammonton, St. Joan of Arc Parish, Christ Presbyterian Church, Wiley Ministries, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, St. Mary of the Lakes in Medford, Medford United Methodist Church and more.
A letter of support was also read on behalf of the Iman of the Islamic Center of South Jersey, who could not attend the service at Beth Tikvah due to a prior commitment at a separate vigil in Pennsylvania.
Rev. Anna Gillete of Marlton United Methodist Church, just one of the speakers at the event, talked about dealing with the “guttural, visceral grief” that she said couldn’t be described in words.
“We can’t reach back to Friday [the day before the attack in Pittsburgh] but we can reach out to the time before us — the time of hope, where violence and vitriol and division do not rule our world or our country or our communities,” Gillete said.
Evesham Township Chief of Police Christopher Chew, who also spoke at the event, encouraged members of the public to always report any suspicious or hateful activity to his department, no matter how small or trivial the matter may seem.
“We will spend every resource possible to identify those individuals and do what we have to do as an agency to locate them and make sure something like Pittsburgh does not occur,” Chew said.
Mayor Randy Brown echoed Chew’s words, noting township officials have directed the ETPD to increase security around Beth Tikvah and other places of worship in Evesham as a precaution.
“We need friendship, we need our families,” Brown said. “I can assure you, the township of Evesham and all elected leaders throughout the region stand in full support of the Jewish community here and across the country.”
Rev. Brett Ballenger of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church also spoke to the ETPD’s zero tolerance approach to fighting hate in Evesham, recalling when his congregation received threats in June 2016 after using its prominent sign along Route 70 to give blessing to Muslims during Ramadan.
“When Chief Chew says he will investigate, he is right on. There were officers there immediately that afternoon, and later on in the week state police made a visit to the person making those threats,” Ballenger said.
On a different note, Ballenger also praised the large turnout before him at Tuesday’s event.
“This is about being together with our neighbors and getting to know our neighbors and standing with our neighbors — not just in times of tragedy, but in times of thanksgiving and joy,” Ballenger said.
Also speaking at Tuesday’s event was Congregation Beth Tikvah’s Rabbi Emeritus Gary Gans.
Gans, who has served the Evesham community for 38 years, told the crowd he had never attended a service as lifting and fulfilling as the one at Beth Tikvah on Tuesday.
He thanked representatives for attending from far and wide, both “geographically” and “theologically.”
In addition to the attack in Pittsburgh, Gans pointed to other recent events across the nation that have caused the need for such solidarity.
First, he referenced the man recently charged with shooting and killing two African-Americans at a supermarket in Kentucky on Oct. 24 after the alleged shooter first tried and failed to enter a predominantly African-American church.
Then, Gans also spoke of the man in Florida charged in connection with the recent series of mail bombs sent to public figures — a man who Gans said used social media to rail against politicians and minorities.
With those events in mind, Gans quoted the well-known words of German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
With those words, Gans told the crowd that everyone must speak for one another.
“We collectively must speak out against this domestic terrorism,” Gans said. “Not just to the Jews who have been the canaries in the cave for so many decades and generations, but for all of us.”
Gans also asked the crowd to support HIAS — the group formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which for nearly 140 years helped resettle Jewish refugees.
While the group originally assisted Jewish refugees, including each set of Gans’ immigrant grandparents, the group also began to assist non-Jewish refugees in the early 21st century.
The man accused of carrying out the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue allegedly targeted the synagogue due to the venue recently holding a HIAS-related event.
In quoting a recent statement from HIAS president Mark Hetfield, Gans said HIAS’s new mission is helping refugees “not because they are Jewish,” but “because we are Jewish.”
“We were strangers in the land,” Gans said. “We understand what that means to seek our freedom.”
Several of those who spoke during Tuesday’s event also invited members of the community from all faiths back to Congregation Beth Tikvah on Wednesday, Nov. 21 — the eve of Thanksgiving — for this year’s township-wide Community Thanksgiving Service starting at 7 p.m.