Synagogue songs embrace Jewish neighbors

Vigil supports Jewish worshipers after shooting

Nov 19, 2018 by and

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First Mennonite Church of San Francisco found itself in a unique position to offer support to a Jewish community shaken by the Oct. 27 shooting that killed 11 people and wounded six at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

The following two weekends, members of the congregation sang hymns and prayed in candlelight vigils outside the door of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, the synagogue in San Francisco where First Mennonite worships on Sunday mornings.

Participants at First Mennonite Church of San Francisco hold a vigil during Congregation Sha’ar Zahav’s Shabbat worship service Nov. 2. — First Mennonite Church San Francisco

Participants at First Mennonite Church of San Francisco hold a vigil during Congregation Sha’ar Zahav’s Shabbat worship service Nov. 2. — First Mennonite Church San Francisco

Besides being a Jewish faith community experiencing anxiety after the bloodiest anti-Semitic hate crime in U.S. history, Sha’ar Zahav has an extra layer of security concerns because it was founded by members of the LGBTQ community.

First Mennonite associate pastor Joanna Lawrence Shenk knew many synagogues have been evaluating security measures in recent years, and felt historic peace churches have a natural role to play in standing up for nonviolence.

“When something tragic happens, people say ‘Let me know how to support you.’ . . . I thought, well that’s not enough,” Lawrence Shenk said. “So I texted [Rabbi Mychal Copeland] about wanting to be supportive, perhaps coming and holding a vigil, and she texted back immediately that it would be wonderful.”

Roughly 20 participants from First Mennonite stood outside the synagogue on the sidewalk singing hymns, offering prayers and interacting with people passing on the street.

Copeland wrote Nov. 9 in The Jewish News of Northern California that hundreds of people came Nov. 2 to the synagogue for the first worship service after the shooting. Some were members, some were Jews new to the group seeking comfort, some were neighbors showing support.

“During the silent prayers of our Shabbat service upstairs in our sanctuary, I asked the crowd to listen to the soft voices outside our open windows and feel how we were held in embrace by our Mennonite neighbors who surrounded the outside of the building,” she wrote.

Before the service, both churches gathered to sing together with songs coordinated by each congregation.

“We were very careful in the songs we picked out from our hymnal that don’t have Christology or theology that would be anti-Semitic or just uncomfortable for Jewish people,” Law­rence Shenk said. “We put a lot of effort into picking songs that would feel supportive to a Jewish community.”

First Mennonite planned to return the weekend of Nov. 16 for a similar vigil, and anticipates evaluating where things stand over Thanksgiving.

Lawrence Shenk said the vigils were a powerful experience for both worshiping bodies.

“There was a somberness to the praying and also, as we were interacting with the Jewish community, there was also this energy and life to it,” she said. “It wasn’t just people somberly singing and holding candles, but there was a lot of energy talking to people in the street passing by.”

That natural expression of support was possible because of existing relationships and a shared spiritual home.

For congregations interested in developing similar relationship, Lawrence Shenk suggested contacting Mennonite Church USA’s Mennonite Jewish Relations Working Group, which is made up of people who have developed such ties.

“If there are synagogues in a city or a town where a Mennonite church is, become familiar and find out if there are interfaith services,” she said. “It doesn’t always make sense to go directly to a specific congregation if we don’t already have points of connection or relationships. I think just showing up in interfaith spaces can be helpful.”

Copeland noted that the problem of hate in America is complex and ongoing, and their singing friends’ presence is not a permanent solution.

“Perhaps our community will decide that we do need to step up security measures in some way down the line,” she wrote. “But in the short term, I’ll take 20 Mennonites over one armed security guard any day.”


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