As in cities across the country, the interfaith community in the Bay Area paid its respects on the one-year anniversary of the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, in which 11 people were shot to death at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
For its part, Grace Cathedral on Oct. 27 hosted an intimate and powerful display of unity in a call to reject the anti-Semitism that helped fuel the attack.
“The opportunity to be joined by people of faith and leaders of other communities and nationalities … was truly meaningful and comforting,” said Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, Northern California director of American Jewish Committee, which co-hosted the afternoon event along with the downtown San Francisco cathedral’s Rev. Anna Rossi, the S.F. Interfaith Council and the Episcopal Diocese of California.
Eisenberg chanted verses from the Torah about the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life, a nod to the namesake of the synagogue that was attacked during Shabbat morning services on Oct. 27, 2018.
The memorial service, attended by about 90 people, included a sermon by Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. She said the Biblical story she referenced — when Cain says to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” after he murders his brother — goes right to the heart of how to combat anti-Semitism.
“We are responsible for each other,” Zimmerman Graf told J. afterward, asserting that the fight against hatred is a collective responsibility. “This extends far beyond the Jewish community.”
In addition to rabbis and reverends, the service was attended by religious leaders, politicians, and S.F.-based diplomats from Germany, Guatemala and Japan.
State Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco read a proclamation signed by Mayor London Breed that officially designated Oct. 27, 2019 as “A Day of Action Against Anti-Semitism.” More than 40 other Northern California cities, including San Jose, Sacramento and Oakland, also signed similar proclamations.
“We are here to remember, to heal and to commit to change,” Wiener said.
In a fusion of Jewish and Catholic voices, Cantor Richard Botton and Grace Cathedral’s choir sang “Grant Us Peace,” belting out the lyrics “Bless our country, that it may ever be a stronghold of peace among the nations” in unison. Botton is cantor emeritus of Central Synagogue in New York City, having retired in 1998.
“I’m afraid about what I hear from our government,” the East Bay resident told J. afterward. Adding that he usually doesn’t talk openly about political matters, he said the current situation in the U.S. calls for it. “Racism and bigotry are the nutrient agar in our government,” he said. “Unless we fight against it, we are a bad model.”
Other religious leaders present included the Rev. Elaine Donlin (Buddhist Church of S.F.), Iftekhar A. Hai (United Muslims of America Interfaith Alliance) and Dr. Lofty Basta (an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian). All expressed a commitment to fighting anti-Semitism.
“I am deeply moved by what happened to our Jewish brothers and sisters a year ago” in Pittsburgh, Hai said to attendees after addressing them with a greeting in both Hebrew and Arabic. “We pray this will never happen again.”
At the end of the service, in a show of unity and defiance, the religious leaders and politicians linked arms with each as they exited the cathedral’s sanctuary.
Said Eisenberg: “Even if it was odd to chant Torah [in an Episcopal church], it was powerful to chant verses with the expression of hope that we can return America to greater unity.”