Thousands in Bay Area come out to honor Israels slain father figure

Sitting in an emptied San Francisco synagogue, a couple held each other, gently rocking as they soaked one another's shoulders with their tears.

At a city-sponsored service at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre, a retired African American man stood for "Hatikva," his eyes downcast.

Moments later, a Buddhist priest lightly tapped a high-pitched bell, which rang throughout the hall.

Across the Bay, U.C. Berkeley students wept in Sproul Plaza as they sang peace songs between classes.

Those were among the close to 9,000 Bay Area residents who attended memorial services this week for slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

At dozens of capacity-crowd memorial services throughout the Bay Area, "Shir La'Shalom" (A Song to Peace), sung by Rabin just before his assassination Saturday night at a peace rally, was given new life. It was held in the hands and hearts of thousands who came out to honor the Israeli leader.

"His last public act was to sing the peace song, the first, and how tragically, the last time he ever sang in public," said Nimrod Barkan, the S.F.-based Israeli consul general of the Pacific Northwest, who spoke at several of the services.

The bloodied song lyrics, found in the fallen leader's breast pocket, have become a symbol to many local mourners that while a bullet can silence a leader, it cannot puncture his dreams of peace.

Feeling orphaned by the loss of a man Barkan called "our father figure," saddened by his violent end, and shocked that the Israeli prime minister was assassinated by a Jew, mourners packed services to say goodbye through song, prayer and remembrance.

About 2,000 people turned out for the Bay Area's largest memorial service held Monday at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El, where a number of local political leaders and candidates were in attendance.

Services were also held in Oakland at Temple Sinai, in San Rafael at Congregation Rodef Sholom, in Sunnyvale at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School, in Burlingame at Peninsula Temple Sholom, in Los Altos Hills at Congregation Beth Am, in Santa Rosa at Congregation Beth Ami, in Berkeley at Northbrae Community Church (a joint service of Kehilla Community Synagogue and the Aquarian Minyan), and in many others.

Local Jewish community federations and Hillels, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, the Northern California Board of Rabbis and other organizations joined to sponsor the community memorials.

Though most Americans had never heard "Shir La'Shalom" before Rabin's assassination made it famous, they struggled to sing along at memorials across the Bay Area, singing in Hebrew and reading the words in English.

"Don't say the day will come…go bring that day! And in all the streets and squares, raise your voices for peace."

At the city-sponsored service at Herbst, more than 700 voices from a multitude of backgrounds joined to remember the soldier of war turned soldier for peace. Religious leaders from St. James Baptist Church, Grace Cathedral, the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church, Congregation Sherith Israel and other organizations joined Mayor Frank Jordan in honoring Rabin.

Before the late afternoon interfaith service, a former Israeli paratrooper rushed in to find a seat. The night before, Paul Berman had attended the service at Oakland's Temple Sinai, along with more than 1,000 others. But Berman, who had met Rabin during the Lebanon War in 1984, was not through grieving.

His voice choppy and his expression tense, he recalled meeting Rabin in person, at an army base.

"The first thing he did was go up to a bush and pee on it. He was a sabra, extremely down to earth. There were no airs and graces, unlike most elected officials. Most could learn lessons from Yitzhak Rabin," he said.

Berman added that the slain prime minister "really cared about his country and its future. Not just for reelection but for our children and grandchildren. He deeply understood the importance of peace."

Samuel Bennett, an African American retiree, had never met Rabin but he still expressed a sense of personal loss.

"All people of good will lose when we lose a man like this. He fought for justice, not just for his people, but for all people," said Bennett before the Herbst service.

At a joint service of Tiburon's Congregation Kol Shofar and San Rafael's Congregation Rodef Sholom, nearly 1,000 people came together — two of them best friends: Gina Waldman, a Libyan-born Jew, and Vivian Jahno, a Palestinian.

After the assassination made news, Waldman got a call from Jahno. "She was crying about Yitzhak Rabin. Here was this Palestinian woman crying about Rabin. It wasn't just the Jews who lost this man."

There was sadness on local college campuses as well. At Stanford University, a videotape of Rabin's funeral played for hours in the center of campus. About 500 students gathered to mourn the leader, and to write messages of condolence to his widow, Leah. A huge scroll of paper, covered with Chinese, Hebrew, Spanish and English messages was so full, students had to scrawl in tiny print between the lines.

Students signed a similar card at San Francisco State University, where about 100 students gathered for a memorial. But the campus, known for its anti-Israel activity, was the site of one of a few negative incidents coloring the aftermath of the assassination.

According to Brad Weinberg, president of the campus Zionist Action Committee, one person wrote on the condolence card, "Now you know how Palestinians feel," and another walked by the memorial, saying "free Palestine."

Those incidents could not taint the beauty of the service, however, according to Weinberg, 24. "Given what we've encountered in the past here, this was a day in the park. There's been great support from the student body and administration."

At U.C. Berkeley, meanwhile, more than 100 students sang peace songs together.

"The unifying of voices is a powerful way to know that we're connected to one another," said Michael Taller, of Berkeley's Hillel. "At a time like this, when people are so sad and scared, that sense of connection is invaluable."

After "Hatikva" provided a stirring cap at the Congregation Emanu-El service, Eleanor Farber and Daniel Friedland comforted each other. As they navigated the crowd moving out of the temple toward Arguello Street — where cars were double-parked along the length of the block — they hugged and talked about the service.

Farber, in tears, stopped often to collect herself. "I feel a sadness," she explained. "I have a strong sense of Jewish community, of Jews always sticking together. For a Jewish person to kill another person is unacceptable."

At Emanu-El's service as at others, much of the pain seemed to come from the shock of Israel's first native-born prime minister dying at the hand of a fellow Jew.

"We must say, enough of fratricide among our own people," said Rabbi Alan Lew, leader of Congregation Beth Sholom and president of the Northern California Board of Rabbis. "Enough of hatred, inside and out. We must root out our own inner demons."

Lew and others shunned violence, and violent speech, stating that radical, incisive words spoken against the Israeli leader and the peace process eventually led to Rabin's death.

Ami Nahshon, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, also focused on the power of language in his speech at Temple Sinai Sunday night.

Jewish law, he said, takes words seriously. As should everyone.

Not only do words have the power to "incite, divide and inflame," they can also be a powerful tool for positive change, Nahshon said.

"Words have the power to heal, soothe and uplift, to give voice to our dreams. I hope that Jews in Israel, and the world over, will find words of tolerance."

As proof of the power of language, Nahshon translated the title of the Israeli national anthem. "Hatikva," he reminded the audience, means hope.