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Richmond comes together for first Shabbat after Pittsburgh shooting

on November 9, 2018

Inside Richmond’s Temple Beth Hillel on Nov. 2, just after the sun dipped below the western horizon, a group of about 40 people gathered for a potluck.

The Friday sunset marked the beginning of Shabbat — and just like every first Friday of the month, the congregants of Temple Beth Hillel recognized it by coming together for a community dinner.

There were the usual fixings: picnic salads and fruit and some pizza for the kids and kids at heart. And as he usually does, Rabbi Dean Kertesz led a prayer over the challah and wine to begin the meal. What was unusual about this Friday, though, were the new faces in the crowd. They were there at the invitation of the temple leadership to partake in the first Shabbat service since 11 people were killed Oct. 27, during the Shabbat morning service at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

As dinner progressed, the room slowly filled and more new faces joined the crowd: Richmond politicians, community members, faith leaders — among them the Rev. Dale Weatherspoon of Richmond’s Easter Hill United Methodist Church — all there to join in solidarity with their Jewish neighbors in the wake of the mass shooting.

“We have to stand in solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters,” Weatherspoon said. “They’re feeling some pain. We’ve experienced that pain in our African American community — when nine brothers and sisters were doing Bible study at Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina.”

Two people embrace before Shabbat dinner at Temple Beth Hill on Nov. 2, 2018. (Photo by Christi Warren)

In all, more than 100 people filled the small hilltop synagogue — the only place of worship of its kind for miles.

“We’re kind of this little synagogue way out there, so we always feel a little bit — if not alone, a little isolated,” Kertesz said. “But we didn’t feel at all alone after Friday night. We felt like the community really embraced us.”

Also in attendance Nov. 2 was Kim Fogel. Jewish, but not a member of any synagogue in particular, the Richmond resident had been thinking about joining Temple Beth Hillel for some time, she said. The day after the Pittsburgh shooting, though, she decided it was finally time.

“I’m sorry it took something like this to get me to do it,” she said. “I felt like it’s time to do something. Take down my name. I don’t know, even if I do join, that my attendance is going to be anywhere near perfect, or that I’ll be terribly observant, but I felt like it was time to be counted.”

Melinda McCrary was there, too. The executive director of the Richmond Museum of History, McCrary isn’t Jewish, but for some time now has been working on an exhibit about local Jewish history, to debut at the museum in January. Because of that, she felt an extra draw to be at the synagogue Friday night.

“I wanted to be part of my community,” she said. “I’m not going to stand by while actions like that take place.”

Kim Fogel, left, and Melinda McCrary, right, talk during Shabbat dinner at Temple Beth Hillel on Nov. 2, 2018. (Photo by Christi Warren)

The shooting had a profound impact on Kertesz, one realized when his 28-year-old daughter Simone Kertesz surprised him by lighting 13 memorial Yahrzeit candles, rather than 11 to remember those killed in the Pittsburgh attack. The additional two, she explained, were for the two black people killed by a white gunman inside a Louisville, Kentucky grocery store just the day before.

“I just thought that was so deep and thoughtful, that that’s just where she went instinctively,” Kertesz said. “That kind of turned my whole way of thinking about it around. My daughter opened my eyes. I wasn’t just thinking about killing Jews. … I thought, this is how black people feel every day. This is how LGBT people feel all the time. This fear of being attacked.”

Some of the first conversations temple leadership had after the shooting revolved around that fear, Kertesz said — what congregants might be feeling and what steps they should take to lessen that fear. As the rabbi delivered his sermon Nov. 2, at times growing emotional, a security guard stood watch outside.

Conversations about what future security measures the temple might take are ongoing.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” he said.

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