West Hawaii Jewish community reacts to Pittsburgh synagogue attack

  • LAURA RUMINSKI/West Hawaii Today

    Rabbi Levi Gerlitzky says a prayer Monday at Old Kona Airport Park for the victims of a shooting Saturday at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

KAILUA-KONA — Distance hasn’t quelled the feelings of shock and grief felt by Kona’s Jewish community after news broke of a gunman barging into a Pittsburgh synagogue and opening fire, killing 11 people.

On Monday, members of Kona Beth Sholom congregation and the rabbi of the Chabad Jewish Center of the Big Island said they felt heartbreak over the idea that someone hates another person just for their faith.

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“It pains us to hear when any attack happens on a group, especially for their beliefs. It brings back fears,” said Rabbi Levi Gerlitzky of the Chabad Jewish Center. “Ultimately, we believe the power of love and unity are more powerful than hate.”

The attack at Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh occurred Saturday during a baby-naming ceremony. A gunman armed with a Colt AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and three Glock .357 handguns, opened fire. The 20-minute attack also left six people injured, including four police officers.

The Associated Press reported the attack was the deadliest on Jews in U.S. history. The suspect, who had no apparent criminal record, expressed virulently anti-Semitic views on social media, including posting images of a fiery oven such as those used in Nazi concentration camps to cremate Jews during World War II.

By the time members of Kona Beth Sholom met for their service at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, news of the tragedy had spread.

Alan Silverman, first vice president of Kona Beth Sholom recalled while some already knew about the incident, there were others who didn’t.

“There was a sense in general that there is a fear that something like this could happen,” Silverman said about the feelings felt among the congregation Saturday. “There was anger expressed as well — all of the stages of grief going on.”

The congregation’s president, Una Greenaway, led Saturday’s Shabbat service at Kona Beth Sholom.

“We said Kaddish, that is a prayer for the deceased,” she said. “We were all sad for our family and just in shock.”

Greenaway added it was a difficult service as they tried to make sense of something that was so senseless.

“We just pray that compassion may be wed to power,” she said.

There also was that sinking feeling that if an attack could happen in a quiet Pittsburgh neighborhood, there’s nothing to say something similar couldn’t happen in Kona. This struck a nerve, as there are those in the congregations that have relatives who suffered and died in the Holocaust.

“Every time you get into a situation where you think you’re safe, something like this happens,” Silverman said. “While the spirit of aloha is strong here, we also found ourselves looking toward the door quite often (during Saturday’s service).”

Gerlitzky also led his members in prayer on Saturday for the victims in Pittsburgh.

“As in all attacks, our response is to respond in love and light. That’s the only way to ultimately destroy darkness,” Gerlitzky said Monday.

The rabbi added the goals of those individuals to divide or destroy typically have an opposite effect.

“It makes people unite more,” he said. “It teaches us to have pure love for everyone, even if they’re completely opposite of our beliefs.”

On Monday, neither congregation had specific plans for vigils or special services. However, Gerlitzky did meet with West Hawaii Today at Old Kona Airport Park to light a candle for the shooting victims.

“The candle resembles the soul. And like the soul, the flame is drawn upward toward heaven,” he said.

The rabbi said he planned to relight the candle when he returned home.

Kona Beth Sholom also posted the following statement on its website:

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“Our hearts are with the members and families of Tree of Life Congregation. Although Kona Beth Shalom may be thousands of miles from Squirrel Hill, we are all one ohana — one meshpocha — one community. Tikkun Olam is our hope and the kuleana — the responsibility — we all share.”

Email Tiffany DeMasters at tdemasters@westhawaiitoday.com.

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