By Elizabeth Oguss and Jaimie Julia Winters,

Extra chairs had to be brought into the sanctuary at Bnai Keshet, Montclair’s Reconstructionist synagogue to accommodate latecomers to the impromptu vigil held there on Saturday night, Oct. 27. Many found out about it only a few minutes before it began at 8 p.m.

The vigil was a response to the terrorist attack during prayer services earlier that day at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The murder of 11 Jews is being called the deadliest in American history.

The gathering in Montclair was organized by Bnai Keshet’s rabbis Elliott Tepperman and Ariann Weitzman, in solidarity with the national progressive movement Bend the Arc Jewish Action, and was one of many vigils being held around the country, both on Saturday and continuing into the week.

Saturday night was a time for Jews to be with one another and for non-Jews to grieve with them. Tepperman and Weitzman worked in conjunction with Rabbi David Greenstein of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, Montclair’s Conservative shul; and Rabbi Marc Katz of Temple Ner Tamid, a Reform congregation in Bloomfield that is home to many of Montclair’s Jews. The vigil was announced in mass emails and a few online posts, according to Lisa Brennan, a member of BK’s communications team.

At least 200 members of the religious, political and social Montclair community arrive at B'nai Keshet to mourn the victims of the Tree of Life massacre.

About 200 people filled the sanctuary, including congregants from all three synagogues and people of other faiths. Clergy from Montclair included the Rev. Elizabeth Campbell of Rising Mt. Zion Church, Imam Kevin Dawud Amin of Masjid Ul Wadud and the Rev. David Noble of Central Presbyterian Church.

Songs and prayers were interspersed with readings and remarks. Noble recited a poem that had as a refrain a line from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, in translation: “All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be overwhelmed by fear.”
The Rev. Robin Tanner of Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Summit, recounted a time when she was subjected to hate messages and threats while serving a congregation in North Carolina. She said the first person to call her in support and solidarity was a rabbi.
Several in attendance accepted the invitation to share thoughts and reflections. Two were proud Pittsburghers who knew the Tree of Life synagogue well. One recited a message he had prepared for his loved ones should he become a victim of a similar crime. Another speaker urged everyone present to vote, as a way to repair the destructive tenor of American politics.

Among those who stood to speak was Archange Antoine, executive director of Faith in New Jersey, which according to its website is a multifaith and multiracial network that works together “to advance a social and economic justice agenda at the local, state and federal level.” Antoine voiced support and solidarity with the Jewish community in Montclair and beyond, as did Amin, the Montclair imam.

The service also included the singing of “Mi shebeirach,” which asks for a blessing on those in need of healing, and all joined in saying Kaddish, a prayer of praise that is recited by mourners.

The evening closed with Havdalah, a short service of music and prayer normally held at dusk on Shabbat to mark its end and a return to ordinary life.

Rev. Elizabeth Jackson Campbell of Rising Mt. Zion Church, right, offers words to Rabbi Ariann Weitzman after the vigil.

As they left the gathering in Montclair and went out into the rainy night, many thanked the uniformed police officer guarding the entrance to the synagogue.

Incidents on the rise

Anti-Defamation League officials said in the ADL’s recently released audit of anti-Semitic incidents for 2017 that the number of such incidents nationwide was nearly 60 percent higher in 2017 than 2016, the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since the league began tracking incident data in the 1970s.

There were 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents reported across the United States in 2017, including physical assaults, vandalism and attacks on Jewish institutions. That figure represents a 57 percent increase over the 1,267 incidents in 2016.

In New Jersey, the number of anti-Semitic incidents including harassment, vandalism and assaults, has grown from 137 in 2015, to 157 in 2016 and 208 in 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Last year, Lodi residents Anthony Graziano and Aakash Dalal were convicted of terrorism and other charges in connection with a string of hate crimes at Jewish temples in Maywood, Hackensack, Paramus and Rutherford in 2011 and 2012. In the cases of the Temple K'Hal Adith Jeshurun in Paramus and Congregation Beth El in Rutherford, both buildings were firebombed. The rabbi and his family were asleep in the home attached to the Rutherford temple, but were able to escape after a Molotov cocktail was thrown through their bedroom window.

Most recently, on Sept. 16 during the Jewish High Holy Days, an improvised explosive device was discovered at B’nai Abraham Cemetery in Newark. The investigation is still ongoing, according to the Essex County Sheriff’s Office.

In light of the Pittsburgh shooting, Essex County has increased security around area temples.

"Sheriff Armando ordered that the officers of his department has increased vigilance at and around all Essex County synagogues and other houses of worship," according to a release.