INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — As the local Jewish community gathered last Saturday morning to pray for peace during the Sabbath, the president of the congregation began to receive a series of disturbing text messages about a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
“It was a rude awakening. It can happen anywhere,” said 74-year-old Vero Beach resident Harold Schwartz, president of the congregation. “I had to think of a way to tell the congregation during service.”
Members of the Temple Beth Shalom of Vero Beach were reading a bible passage about hospitality in Genesis chapter 18 when they learned the Jewish day of worship and peace – the Sabbath – turned deadly hundreds of miles away at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Suspected gunman Robert Bowers, 46, sprayed bullets inside the synagogue Saturday, killing 11 and injuring six others. The massacre is one of the deadliest attacks against the Jewish community.
Schwartz received texts from a local temple board member about the mass shooting and then informed other worshipers.
“Everyone was dumbfounded. People were visibly upset and angry,” Schwartz said. “It is a terrible thing.”
Worshipers at the temple in Vero Beach said a prayer for the victims of the shooting, all while wondering if they should continue service or lock the doors to their own sanctuary.
“It was scary, frightening and a nightmare come true,” said Rabbi Michael Birnholz, 44, of Vero Beach. “There has been concern for a while about anti-Semitism and xenophobia. These hateful acts happen when we stop looking into each others eyes and forget that we are all made in God’s image.”
Prayers for Unity
Worship leaders held a prayer vigil about 7 p.m. Tuesday at the temple’s sanctuary to remember those killed in the “senseless act of hatred and violence.” Temple Beth is located on 43rd Avenue.
“We have been very fortunate in Vero Beach to not run into anti-Semitism,” Schwartz said. “When we do, it is time to stand up and say ‘enough is enough.'”
Nearly 300 people attended the vigil. Birnholz recalled the moment he and about 10 other worshipers found out about the mass shooting several states away. He said “in that moment, we felt alone, sitting in this room.”
Luminaries lined the walkway to the sanctuary. Attendees used the glow from their cell phones to brighten the room as Birnholz lit 13 candles.
The Pittsburgh synagogue victims represent 11 of the candles. The remaining represent two victims of a fatal shooting last week at a Kentucky Kroger grocery store, which is being investigated as a possible hate crime against African Americans.
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Posted by Nick Samuel on Tuesday, October 30, 2018
Leaders from other local churches – including First Baptist Church of Vero Beach, Sebastian United Methodist Church and Unitarian Universalist Fellowship – announced their solidarity with the Temple Beth Shalom of Vero Beach.
“We are getting to a culture where someone will be affected by gun violence everyday,” said Joe LaGuardia, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Vero Beach. He described the vigil as a point of light.
Temple Beth’s Past President Richard Bialosky said he thought the vigil was phenomenal.
“When I saw everybody, it made me proud to live in Vero Beach,” Bialosky said. “So much goodness.”
Leaders said they are happy extra Indian River County sheriff’s patrol units were added to the temple for security.
“Lots of people are scared,” Birnholz said. “It is our responsibility to take care of the people around us and lift each other up.”
The Temple Beth Shalom of Vero Beach is the only synagogue located in the county, sheriff’s spokesman Maj. Eric Flowers said. For the Sabbath, the Jewish community around the world prays from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, Birnholz said.
Birnholz said he has worked at the temple for 16 years. The synagogue will hold its 40th anniversary next September.
Attendees at the vigil received glass beads. Those beads, Birnholz said, represented the person’s job to carry out a kindful act when they left the event.
“We are going to make this a world filled with shalom.”
Photos by Nick Samuel
This story will be updated.