Lehigh Valley stands together against hate

By Stephanie Smartschan
JFLV Director of Marketing

One by one, standing side by side, each member of the clergy announced his or her name and place of worship. They came from churches, mosques and temples across the Lehigh Valley. Sixty in all.

They spoke to the more than 1,000 people gathered at the Jewish Community Center of the Lehigh Valley on Oct. 31, crammed into every corner of the Kline Auditorium, the Auxiliary Auditorium and into the lobby and hallway. 

With little notice they came, battling for parking and waiting in a line that wrapped around the building, just to get in. They came to show their solidarity with the Jewish community in the wake of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27 that left 11 Jews dead. They came to stand together against hate.

“We too are heartbroken at the killing of 11 innocent Jewish worshipers when their sanctuary was invaded by deadly hatred and violence that seems to be increasing in our society,” said the Rev. Maria Tjeltveit, speaking on behalf of the interfaith clergy. “We denounce together the anti-Semitism, racism and prejudice that seek to deny that we are all created in the image of God as beloved brothers and sisters.”

The Interfaith Community Vigil included Jewish prayers, in both Hebrew and English, for the ailing and the departed. The crowd read together the “Prayer for Our Country” and later sang “America the Beautiful.” Students from the Jewish Day School of the Lehigh Valley and religious schools sang “Oseh Shalom.” 

The Lehigh Valley Jewish Clergy Group led the service, taking turns reading and singing the prayers and then lighting memorial candles for each of the 11 victims. Rabbi Michael Singer from Congregation Brith Sholom spoke on behalf of the group.

He spoke about an experience he had just a couple of weeks prior, while officiating at a Jewish funeral. At the cemetery, the family had made their way back to the road when someone pulled up in a car and started screaming “I hope all you Jews dies,” he said. “They had just buried their mother.”

“We will not allow anti-Semitism or bigotry and hate to have the last word. We will not be deterred by fear, we will work together, united, to create the kind of Lehigh community, the country and the world worthy of our children and worthy of God’s name,” Singer said. “About this I am supremely hopeful. I am hopeful because of the countless outpouring of love and kindness that surrounds in this room … I am hopeful because of you.”

Eva Levitt, president of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley, organizer of the event, gave opening remarks.

After the Holocaust, Levitt came to the United States with her family “thinking that this was a safe place.” “That dream, that hope, has been shattered,” she said, not just by the tragic events in Pittsburgh but by anti-Semitism that is “rearing its ugly head” everywhere.

“Hate and bigotry will always be there. It’s how we handle and what we try to do about it that is important,” Levitt said. “And I think that building bridges between communities is a wonderful start, as proven by looking out and seeing all of you there.” 

Jeri Zimmerman, interim executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley, closed out the program, thanking the clergy group, the interfaith clergy, the elected officials, the local law enforcement, members of the media, volunteers from the Red Cross and everyone for coming to show their solidarity.

“Through our Community Relations Council, we have developed meaningful and long-lasting relationships. It is because of these relationships that we don’t feel alone at this difficult time. Your presence here tonight is humbling and reassuring and lets all of us know that anti-Semitism and hate have no place in our community,” Zimmerman said to a round of applause.