Vigils After Synagogue Shooting Highlight Interfaith Community’s Strength, Struggles

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Photo: Temple Emmanuel Service
Thousands of people packed into Temple Emmanuel, Colorado's largest synagogue, for an interfaith service in honor of the 11 people killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

A massive gathering at Colorado's largest synagogue Sunday night highlighted the strengths of the interfaith community as well as the dire straits they're up against.

A vigil at Temple Emmanuel in Denver honored the 11 people killed at a shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday. Similar ceremonies took place in Boulder and Colorado Springs, as well as across the nation.

Rev. Amanda Henderson, who leads the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, was at the Temple Emmanuel service. She has taken part in similar services before, such as a candlelight vigil in honor of the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting.

"When events like this happen, my instinct is to draw closer to people, and to dig deeper into this alternative way of being that is grounded in love and compassion, and to lean into that rather than the fear," Henderson said.

The reverend was struck by the number of people from a variety of faiths who came together at Temple Emmanuel. While bigotry has been with humanity always, Henderson said the "flames are being fanned" more now.

"It’s important to name that it's not a new phenomenon. This is a part of our disease of humanity that’s been with us," she said.

"I think that we are definitely in a time where divisive rhetoric from our leaders is making a difference. That people feel that it is ok to say things that they would not have thought it was ok to say before."

Henderson points to the well-documented rise in hate crimes in recent years. The number of antisemitic incidents jumped 57 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

A debate over security at religious communities was reignited after President Donald Trump suggested that an armed guard at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh could have made a difference in the shooting.

Henderson acknowledged it's a question she and other faith leaders have wrestled with and discussed with law enforcement in the past. But she stood against having armed guards in front of faith communities for regular services.

"While safety is certainly a priority and important, I think we cannot wall ourselves off as faith communities," Henderson said. "A central tenet of so many of our faith traditions is hospitality and welcome and openness to the community, and we can fall into being locked into fear rather than being open to one another."

The Tree of Life synagogue only employed extra security on High Holy Days, a common standard for Jewish faith centers.

While Henderson agreed interfaith work often preaches to an already open-minded choir, she said equally important are the one-on-one interactions we all have everyday with people different from us.

"While we might not be able to change the mind of someone who is an extremist or at the far end of the spectrum, through slowly working and building these relationships we can counter the level of hate and vitriol that seems to be stirring up in our communities right now," she said.