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Why I Said Kaddish for Churchgoers in Charleston

(JTA) — My father died a few weeks ago. The hardest part of the shiva was when it ended. Friends and family were, by and large, no longer visiting. I was alone in pain and agony.

I thought of this reality during my visit to the Emanuel AME Church in this city merely two weeks after the racially motivated massacre that killed nine people.

Joined by Rabbis Shmuel Herzfeld and Etan Mintz, we approached the front of the church. The cameras, which had been everywhere for days, were gone. Only a couple dozen people were milling about, a tiny fraction of the many, many thousands who had previously visited. Life goes on, even after the most horrific losses.

We stood in front of the church sign. Simple and stark, it read “AME Church, Pastor Clementa Pinckney.” The last line of the board announced when the pastor was scheduled to preach next. Sadly, that sermon was never given.

Flowers, wreaths and signs of blessing were everywhere. One picture stood out — a picture of hands, one black, the other white, clasping one another. Beneath it were the words “One Love – One Skin.”

Surrounding the church were its leaders. We embraced.

We returned that evening to join the weekly Bible class. It was in that very space that the massacre occurred. What struck me most was the lack of security. The door was open and we just walked in. This would not have occurred in a synagogue, where we would no doubt have been met by security men and women, and metal detectors. At AME, there was none of that: only welcoming hands and welcoming smiles.

The leader greeted us. When asked to introduce myself to the assembled, I simply said, “We’ve come to give you a collective hug. We’ve come in the spirit of our rabbis who declared, ‘a little bit of light can push away the darkness.’”

The class began. At times I felt uneasy. The theology espoused was not ours. These ambivalent feelings, however, were eclipsed by the recognition that we were in a holy place — a place where people were murdered simply because of the color of their skin.

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The reverend invited participation. As he spoke of the need for harmony in the wake of hatred, I was moved. He kindly gave me the floor.

I sang out Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s melody to the Psalmist’s words: “Because of my brothers and friends, because of my sisters and friends, please let me sing, please let me say, peace to you.” (Psalms 122:8)

The hundred or so participants, who learned the melody quickly, joined in. Overcome by emotion, I then moved to the front of the room, where, standing arm in arm with the church’s leaders, we sang the melody once more.

The lesson that followed was deep, as the reverend called on the participants to forgive and sing, even in the midst of this tragedy. He then cited Psalm 137, wherein the Jews of Babylonia refused to sing because they were in exile.

“We must do it differently than the Israelites,” the reverend concluded. “We must sing, even now.”

In truth, the Jewish people also sing in the darkness of moments. We, too, sing. But only after the required time to be angry and outraged has passed. Our traditions, while clearly distinct, are not that far apart.

That night confirmed what I had been feeling these past two weeks as I watched coverage of the unspeakable tragedy. We in the Jewish community have much to learn from the hope and faith expressed by these extraordinary women and men.

The class concluded with a discussion of five feelings that block spiritual healing: resentment, worry, guilt, grief, and irritability — universal emotions that remind us of our human commonality.

Human commonality has its dark side as well. Sitting in the church social hall, I envisioned my brothers being murdered in a Jerusalem synagogue just a few months prior, murdered because they were Jews. I have rarely met a racist who is not an anti-Semite or an anti-Semite who is not a racist.

The class ended. We embraced the family of Myra Thompson, one of the murdered who had received her license to preach for the ministry on the very same day of the shooting. We said little. Sometimes the best words of condolence are no words at all. In moments of greatest vulnerability, what counts most is feeling the presence of others. With generous spirit, Myra’s sister opened her purse, took out a button with Myra’s picture and pinned it on my shirt. It read: “Remember the Emanuel 9.”

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As the sun was setting, I was desperate to find a minyan (a prayer quorum) to say the memorial prayer, kaddish, for my father. Though we had arranged to meet Rabbi Yossi Refson, a Chabad rabbi who had agreed to help us, we needed a ride to rendezvous with him.

I saw a middle-aged black woman emerging from the study group, her foot in a cast, struggling to get into her beaten-up car. Without hesitation, I asked her if she would not mind giving us a lift so we could go pray. “Of course,” she replied.

We all climbed in. It was surreal. Just moments earlier we had joined her and the church study group to offer our support, and now Octavia was helping us find a minyan so I could say kaddish.

We met Rabbi Yossi, who took us to Folly Beach. “There are a bunch of Israelis,” he told us, “who have stores near the beach.” Others would join us from farther away. And so it happened. Right there, on that South Carolina beach, I said kaddish. One of the participants, Itai, had driven an hour to join us because he was the crucial 10th man.

As I recited kaddish for my father, I wanted to also say it in the memory of the nine Emanuel martyrs. I wondered whether my father would take exception. I thought of a rabbinic teaching my father would often cite: “As hatred defies the rule, so, too, love defies the rule. “

As I chanted kaddish in that open air, on that sunny beach, I called out the words “yitgadel veyitkadesh shmeih rabbah” — “magnified and sanctified is the name of God,” I could see my father smile. I felt him gently tapping me on the shoulder. I heard him whisper, “Well done, my son, well done. The love that defies the rule will be victorious over the hate that defies the rule.”

Rabbi Avi Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York and the co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. This piece first appeared in the Charleston Post and Courier.

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