WESTPORT — Rabbi Yehoshua Hecht of the Beth Israel Chabad of Westport and Norwalk did not hear of the shooting on Saturday morning at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh until later that night because he was celebrating sabbath.

“There were increased patrols around the synagogue all day and I didn’t know why because during the sabbath day I don’t use electronic equipment or cell phones,” Hech said, noting he started to receive calls Saturday night notifying him of the 11 people shot dead at synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

“We’re shocked, we’re mortified,” Hecht said, adding, “Houses of faith are always open because people go to houses of faith to gain strength, solace and hope. Here’s a beautiful place of community that was turned into a killing ground.”

The news of Pittsburgh rippled throughout Westport and across the country on Saturday and on Sunday, over 800 people from the community gathered at The Conservative Synagogue of Westport to honor the victims at Tree of Life, also a Conservative Jewish synagogue.

“The community vigil was comforting because it gave everyone an opportunity to come together and remind ourselves that together we are stronger,” Conservative Synagogue Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn, said, adding that over a dozen non-Jewish clergy, such as Reverend Dr. Bernard Wilson of the Northfield Congregational Church in Weston, participated in the interfaith service.

For some in Westport, the tragedy in Pittsburgh laid bare antisemitism that had previously thought to have receded from American life.

“People are shocked and they feel vulnerable. We’ve long known that antisemitism is out there somewhere, but we're very concerned that it seems to be legitimized these days and that’s very scary,” Rabbi Michael Friedman of Westport’s Temple Israel said, adding the Squirrel Hill shooting was the worst anti-semitic act in United States history.

“From a historical perspective, Jews are certainly sensitive to anti semitism, Steve Getz, President of The Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Fairfield County said.

“That (anti semitism) is why so many Jews came to America: to escape that kind of danger and threat. America was believed to be a haven for safety and equality and religious freedom.

"An incident like this and the documented evidence of increased anti semitism in recent years in this country have really been alarming to Jews in this nation,” Getz added.

Because Jewish people have long been a part of the American tapestry, the shooting in Pittsburgh is not only a Jewish tragedy, but also an American tragedy, Getz said.

The unifying theme among the interviewed leaders was a dedication to not let the tragedy push congregants away from community. The Conservative Synagogue is joining a world-wide campaign this weekend to #ShowupforShabbat, which encourages worshipers to come to synagogue on Friday and Saturday night to show the community is not afraid — and not alone, Wiederhorn said.

“I’m telling people to not continue with our life would increase the desecration of our humanity and our faith. We’re not going to give that victory to the dark side. We have to express more faith, more acts of loving kindness, reach out to more people in society on the margins. This is our only answer. I don’t know of any other practical way,” Hecht said.

The Humanistic congregation will respond by continuing to believe that people have the responsibility and capacity to make the world a better place by challenging those who espouse bigotry and hate wherever it exists, Getz said.

“You just redouble your efforts and you reach out more and you do more,” Getz said, adding the Jewish toast of l’chaim is a good guide for this moment. “It’s a cornerstone of the Jewish experience that means you value life, and everything that goes with it. That there’s ups and downs, but life is still worth living, and you go on,” Getz said.

svaughan@hearstmediact.

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