The prayers were in Arabic, Hebrew and English, but the sorrow felt in the wake of last Friday’s massacre of 50 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand, united the crowds as one.
That afternoon and throughout the weekend, supporters gathered at vigils and mosques across the Bay Area to mourn and show solidarity.
On Friday evening, kippahs and taqiyahs (Muslim skullcaps) were interspersed in the crowd that assembled in front of the Islamic Center of Mill Valley. Two hundred people gathered for the vigil there, including a significant number from the Jewish community.
Fatima Hansia, the Islamic Center’s community outreach director, helped organize the gathering of support. She was not surprised by the strong Jewish presence.
“Our biggest supporters since day one here in Marin [have] always been the Jewish community,” Hansia said. The interfaith solidarity, she added, defies stereotypes about animosity between Jews and Muslims.
The support runs both ways, said Julia Dvorin, a board member at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael who attended the vigil with several other members of the synagogue. Dvorin said that following the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last November, members of Marin’s Muslim community showed up for Jewish memorial services.
“It felt so good to have neighbors there,” Dvorin said.
Speakers at the Mill Valley gathering included Assemblyman Marc Levine; Rabbi Paul Steinberg of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon; Douglas Mundo, executive director of the Multicultural Center of Marin; Ashley Reid, administrative assistant at the Marin Interfaith Council and a San Francisco Theological Seminary student; and Mill Valley Mayor Stephanie Moulton-Peters.
“Islamophobia cannot stand in the presence of love,” Steinberg said. “I love you, I love you all.”
Levine, who represents the North Bay and helped found the California Legislature’s Jewish caucus, noted that he had attended a church service in Marin City after the shooting at an African American church in South Carolina in 2015 and gone to a Shabbat service following the Pittsburgh massacre
Levine said that one way to help prevent future tragedies would be to provide state grants for security improvements at places of worship.
“White supremacy is a growing threat, and we have to do everything we can to make sure that threat is never realized.”
Hansia led a 49-second moment of silence for the 49 people who had died in the shooting, while 49 participants held 49 candles. (The official death toll has since risen to 50.)
“I want us to not associate darkness or violence with their memories,” Hansia said.
The following night, March 16, some 200 mourners attended a vigil at the Pacifica Institute in Albany. Representatives from the Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Hindu and Buddhist communities attended, expressing solidarity with their Muslim neighbors.
The Pacifica Institute is a national organization that works to foster interfaith dialogue and understanding, so the strong Jewish presence at the vigil was understandable. Fatih Ferdi Ates, the institute’s Bay Area director and a Muslim, greeted attendees, who filled every seat, with others standing in the back or lining the stairs down to the street.
“I have a heavy heart,” he told the crowd. “I say no to the violence and to the hatred and bigotry that fosters this violence. Your presence is a great comfort.”
Speakers from various faith communities took the stage to share their thoughts or say prayers. First to speak was Rabbi Chai Levy of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, which, along with the Pacifica Institute, has cosponsored a Muslim-Jewish dialogue for more than a decade.
She related the Torah story traditionally read this week, of Amalek, an ancient enemy who attacked straggling Israelites from behind as they wandered through the wilderness. “Amalek still lives today in the one who massacres innocent Muslims in prayer, who murders Jews in prayer in Pittsburgh, African Americans in a church in Charleston and Sikhs in their temple in Wisconsin,” Levy said. “The Jewish tradition commands us to wipe out Amalek.”
Rev. Will McGarvey, executive director of the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County, expressed disgust with the racist motives behind the Christchurch attack.
“We need to deal with our whiteness in this country,” said McGarvey, who is white himself. “It’s a troubling ideology that strips the humanity from the people who claim it. We need to do away with whiteness, we have to do away with tribalism, or we will not survive as a human family.”
Seth Brysk, a regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he was saddened to attend yet another vigil in the wake of a massacre, but noted, “Our love is stronger than any hate.”
Other speakers at the Albany vigil included Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Oakland’s Temple Sinai; Sensei Elaine Donlin of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco; FBI Special Agent Kyle Blebsheimer of the bureau’s S.F. office; Fred Fielding, an Episcopalian trustee of the S.F.-based United Religions Initiative; and Albany Mayor Rochelle Nason.
Rabbi Rebekah Stern and Cantor Elaya Jenkins-Adelberg of Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El ended the vigil with a song of peace. “Enough. I’m tired of this,” the rabbi said. “I’m not sure what the answer is, but this [gathering] is part of it.”
Sitting with the crowd was Rabbi Steven Chester, emeritus rabbi at Oakland’s Temple Sinai and currently the interim rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette. “We all have to rally together against hate. We cannot only participate when our own ox is gored,” he said.
Karen Marker, a Jewish resident of Oakland, attended because, she said, “we all have to stand together.
“The Muslim community did so much for the Jewish community [after the massacre of Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue last year]. They gave money to support burials, and it’s our obligation to stand with them now.”
The Pacifica Institute’s Ates was deeply touched by the show of community support.
“Honestly, my heart was really broken,” he said, “but after this event, now it is filled with hope and a kind of joy. I was expecting a huge crowd, but not like this, all walks of life coming together. People ask me, ‘Are you afraid [after New Zealand]?’ If there is one thing I’m afraid of, it’s losing humanity, losing human values, compassion, respect.”
At the Mill Valley vigil, Muslim community members said that while the attack in New Zealand was painful, they continue to feel safe in Mill Valley.
“We’ve never felt afraid over here,” said Hamza Salehbhai. “The people that surround us are very loving; our neighbors are very loving.”