Yahrzeits are anniversaries observed by Jews on the anniversary of someone’s death. It’s a solemn time designed to remember those who have passed, and what might be awaiting them after death.
But the yahrzeit observed at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale last Friday was a bit different. Because it wasn’t for just a single family member or loved one, but instead for the 11 people killed last year during a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Everyone from Hebrew Home residents to staff members gathered in a sunlit room to remember each of those victims with a new wood-and-metal art installation from Cristin Shakeshaft called “Ray of Hope.”
The piece features a rising golden sun framed by 11 rays of light, symbolizing each of the victims.
“What it represents most importantly is hope for a new day,” Hebrew Home chief executive Dan Reingold said, “a new sunrise of healing.”
But the ray of hope is more than just about Tree of Life, Reingold said. It’s about other places of worship where the unimaginable happened — like Al Noor Mosque, and Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, was the site of an attack that killed 42 congregants earlier this year. In 2016, a white supremacist killed nine people during a Bible study at the Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
“There have been more domestic attacks on innocent people around the country because of their religion than there have been terrorist attacks,” Reingold said. “These attacks are against people of all faiths. We are here today to stand together, united among our different faiths to defy this hatred.”
Reingold invited religious leaders from across the borough to take part in an interfaith memorial. The Rev. Andrew Butler of Christ Church Riverdale read a passage from the prophet Isaiah.
“We take these words to remember that God’s love has no boundaries, that love has no boundaries,” he said. “May we all work for a better world, and make this hope that we read of and talk of a reality. It is up to each one of us.”
The Hebrew Home’s rabbi, Simon Hirschhorn, spoke of the story of Abraham’s visit from three angels. Those angels, he said, had one purpose each.
“Angels, unlike us, don’t multitask,” Hirschborn said “They can only do one thing that God commands them to do.”
One of the angels was there to tell Abraham he would have a son. Another was there to warn the two temples would be destroyed. The third was there to heal him.
That last angel caught Abraham by surprise, Hirschborn said, asking why God did not come to heal him himself.
“The answer he gives was that God wanted to be with Abraham as a friend,” Hirschhorn said. “Not as a doctor, as a nurse. He wanted to be with him as a friend. We need to learn how to be with each other as friends.”
Hirschborn asked the room to take the hands of the person next to them while he sang a prayer.
The story of the angels was to encourage people to come together as friends, he said, something he sees as incredibly important.
Last year, after the Oct. 27 shooting, Hebrew Home had a similar service.
“It was just to be with each other,” Hirschborn said. “What can you say at that point? It was just a need to be with each other.”
Mehnaz Afridi, the head of the Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Center at Manhattan College, read a surah, a passage from the Quran.
“The crowd today in front of me is absolutely beautiful and stunning in all ways you can imagine,” she said. “And this was God’s creation. We shall not forget that these horrible murders, racial attacks — against Jews, Christians, Muslims, black Americans — have been terrifying for all of us. But today we celebrate this ray of hope here.”
Reingold traveled to Pittsburgh last year to visit Tree of Life after the shooting. He was serving on the Jewish Association of Aging, and wanted to show support on behalf of the organization in the city.
“It was probably one of the hardest things I ever did,” Reingold said. “I had to get up in front of the community and try to offer words of solace. And I had no idea what they were going through. It was truly the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.”
Despite that, Reingold was inspired by the way the community reacted with strength and as one community, rather than allowing themselves to be divided.
“The way that they reacted to this,” Reingold said, “the way that they came together and showed their strength and unity in all religions, in all faiths, was truly one of the most memorable moments of my life.”