2018: A Year of Sorrow, Joy and Turmoil, Reflected in Stories

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What transpired at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh Oct. 27 changed 2018 for the Jewish Community.

JED WEISBERGER | JE STAFF

For Jewish communities worldwide, 2018 stopped while Shabbat morning services were underway in the Tree of Life building in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh.

That was when suspect Robert Gregory Bowers, 46, burst into the service with semiautomatic weapons, killing 11 worshipers and injuring seven. It was the deadliest attack ever on the Jewish community in the United States.

Though two months have passed, American Jewish communities, Philadelphia among them, are still working through the emotions the gunman wrought, and what Jews both in our area and beyond will associate with 2018.

“It’s only been eight weeks, and we certainly feel the pain in our area,” said Rabbi Joshua Waxman, the president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia and spiritual leader of Reconstructionist congregation Or Hadash in Fort Washington. “So many families in our area have relatives and other relations with Pittsburgh in various ways. This affected a lot of us in our area because of those relationships.”

David Straus, senior rabbi of the Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, agreed.

“There are a lot of similarities between the Main Line and Squirrel Hill,” Straus said. “Both are longstanding communities with tradition. That was upset by a horrific act we all felt.”

The event in Pittsburgh prompted area synagogues to beef up security in an effort to assure those attending services felt safe after the unparalleled attack on innocent Jews who attended Shabbat morning services as they always had. There also are community members learning firearm usage at an Israeli-owned range.

Both Waxman and Straus, while guiding their respective communities through the pain of loss, were encouraged by the reaction and support their congregants received from the overall community. Show Up for Shabbat, scheduled Nov. 2-3 in reaction, filled area synagogues with both their members and support from the general community to overflowing.

“It wasn’t just Show Up for Shabbat, but all the events we participated in,” Waxman said. “The event in Pittsburgh was a tragedy. The response from the general community was heartwarming.”

Straus, who is chair of the National Council of Synagogues and serves on the board and executive committee of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, feels the Greater Philadelphia Jewish Community can count on its neighbors.

“My parents in Germany saw their synagogue destroyed and their neighbors just stood by,” he said. “In our area and the entire United States, the vast majority is involved in fighting hate, bigotry and anti-Semitism.

“That we can feel good about and heal.”

Celebrating a Super Bowl win

Other stories covered by the Exponent in 2018 catalogued the region’s highest highs. Ethan Rabbino, for example, had a football-themed Bar Mitzvah. What he did not plan on was a surprise trip to Minneapolis with mom, Stacey, where he watched the Eagles win Super Bowl LII.

“It was really loud, but it was really fun and a great experience,” Ethan said.

His mom took no chances, booking a hotel room in Minneapolis the previous October.

Congregation Rodeph Shalom won its bet with Boston’s Temple Israel, in which a donation 18 times the difference in scores to an organization of the opponent’s choosing was on the line. Both won, with Temple Israel donating to Philly Youth Basketball and Rodeph Shalom contributing to that organization and the CTE Center at Boston University Medical Center.

“We thought it was just a perfect way to channel our energy, not only into the competition, but also into doing a mitzvah,” Rodeph Shalom Senior Rabbi Jill Maderer said.

An orchestra caught in the middle

2018 proved to be a year in which the Israeli-Palestinian issue often grabbed headlines on regional campuses and even put The Philadelphia Orchestra in the middle as it prepared for a June trip to Europe and Israel.

On May 30, about 60 pro-Palestinian demonstrators disrupted the Orchestra’s performance of Tosca in the Kimmel Center by both blocking traffic and sending two of their group into the concert hall, according to a report in the The Philadelphia Inquirer. The performance was halted for 10 minutes as Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin slammed his baton on the podium and walked off the stage with some of the musicians.

Tosca resumed after the two protestors, opposed to the Orchestra visiting Israel, were removed from the Kimmel Center.

The Orchestra performed in Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany and Austria before extending its tour to Israel, where it was joined by 70 members of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia in honor of the Jewish state’s 70th birthday and as part of an emerging partnership between the Jewish Federation and the Orchestra.

“Our mission is not just about playing music,” Orchestra Executive Vice President Ryan Fleur said. “It’s also about the work we do off-stage, how we connect with people who don’t have the same access as others. And then also, what we refer to diplomacy, the way we use music to help communicate among people of different backgrounds.”

A name change and a move

Also back in May, the Gershman Y, which has been at 401-11 S. Broad St. for years, announced it would be both moving and changing its name. The University of the Arts has owned the Y’s building since 2000 and its lease was ending in December.

The organization is now the Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival and it focuses exclusively on film-related programming. It has taken office space at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH).

“We felt the Jewish Film Festival was elite programming,” Gershman Y board President Jacob Cohen said, “and that moving forward the best way to go. We’re not going to be just a movie theater that operates out of different venues.

“We’re going to continue to have our conversations with directors, screenwriters and actors; panel discussions; film-and-food pairing events; and Film Connect, which is going to be a series where musicians and vocalists perform in conjunction with film projections.”

Elections played a role

A pair of area Jewish Republicans took unsuccessful stabs at running for higher office.

Philadelphia’s Brian Leib was defeated by veteran Democratic U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans in the Third Congressional District. Montgomery County real estate developer Jeff Bartos lost in the race for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor. l

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