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Overflow, interfaith crowd gathers for Greensboro rally in wake of Pittsburgh synagogue killings

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Ethan Gers (right) rubs Jacob Gers' (center) back at the Rally Against Hate and Violence at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C., on Tuesday, October 30, 2018.

GREENSBORO — Rabbi Fred Guttman stood at the pulpit and looked at the back of the synagogue where hundreds stood against the walls of the city's largest Jewish place of worship. When the chairs ran out, people plopped down in the aisles.

When he asked non-Jews to stand, seemingly half the room did during the "Guilford County Rally Against Hate and Violence" at Temple Emanuel Tuesday, just days after a gunman opened fire at a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 people.

"Thank you, thank you so much," Guttman said through tears. "Thank you so much for your solidarity. Thank you so much for being here."

An estimated 2,000 people crammed into every nook in the sanctuary and its wings on the campus. Hundreds stood in the foyer. Outside, hundreds more gathered, unable to get in.

"This is Greensboro," Mayor Nancy Vaughan said as she looked across the room at the diversity of faces and various clergy, including a Hindu priest.

Among the crowd were dozens of politicians who had heeded Guttman's call to suspend their campaigns for the rally to show their solidarity. They ranged from school board candidates to congressional candidates.

Soul-stirring songs and prayers brought both consolation and hope. A rabbi lit a candle of mourning.

The crowd quickly came to its feet when Guttman said politicians should publicly denouce the rising tide of white nationalism. He pledged to continue to fight against hate after mentioning recent high-profile anti-Semitic events, including the Charlottesville, Va., white supremacist rally last year where participants chanted "Jews shall not replace us." 

"Eli Wiesel taught the opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference," Guttman said, raising the name of the Holocaust survivor. "Some are guilty but we all are responsible."

Together, they repeated the names of the 11 who died at the Tree of Life Synagogue, where countless others were also injured as services were taking place.

"They are yours," said Cantor Mitchel Sommers, leading the audience in a sacred funeral prayer in Hebrew and English. "They will rest in peace."

Robert Bowers, 46, of Pittsburgh is accused of the attack in the historic Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. The Anti-Defamation League calls it one of the the deadliest attacks on the Jewish community in this country.

Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, too, was in the midst of Sabbath services during the attack. That the shooting happened during services at a house or worship seemed especially cruel as they gathered in honor of the dead.

"As a Jew, it is very heartening to see us come together," City Councilwoman Tammi Thurm said. "What happened isn't a Jewish tragedy or a Christian tragedy, it's a human tragedy."

They had mourned here, in this very sanctuary, when a gunman pulled out a weapon and killed nine during Bible study at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015. They have done so for a litany of senseless acts, from the terrorist acts of Sept. 11 to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 that killed 20 children.

But these were fresh tears.

"Our hearts are torn," said Rabbi Miriam Spitzer of High Point University, who led the audience in tearing a bit of fabric that they were given when they arrived, signifying the fabric of the community being torn with the dead. "Eleven Jews. Eleven Americans. Eleven people engaged in sacred worship have been ripped from us."

Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 336-373-7049 and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.

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