When the congregants of Ohev Shalom, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C., heard about the tragedy that occurred at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, it was at the same time that they were celebrating Shavout.
Since the congregants were Orthodox Jews, they do not travel or use the Internet on Shabbat or holidays, like Shavout. However, when on the night of June 12 they heard the news, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld said from the pulpit that as soon as Shavout ended at 9:17 p.m. on June 13, the congregation would travel from their synagogue in Northwest Washington to a gay bar as an act of solidarity, according to the Washington Post.
The congregants wanted to share the message that everyone was in tremendous pain and that no lives were continuing as normal.
Someone in the congregation told Herzfeld about a bar called the Fireplace, so Herzfeld decided that would be their destination. Herzfeld later found out that the bar was predominantly frequented by gay African-Americans.
Approximately a dozen congregants of Ohev Shalom, wearing kippot, went to the bar as soon as Shavout ended. While some members of the group were gay, the majority were not.
As the congregants gathered outside, Herzfeld’s mother, went up to a man outside and explained why they were all there. The man broke down in tears and explained that his cousin was killed at Pulse, then embraced all of the congregants and invited them into Fireplace.
While the congregants came in not knowing what to expect, they ultimately discovered that they had a lot in common with Fireplace’s patrons. One patron told Herzfeld that his step-children had been bar-mitzvahed at his congregation. Another patron asked Herzfeld for his card so that his church could come and visit. The bartender turned off all the music in the room, and the crowd became silent as the congregants offered words of prayer and healing. Herzfeld’s co-clergy, Maharat Ruth Friedman, shared a blessing related to the holiday of Shavout and lit memorial candles on the bar ledge. Then everyone in the bar put their hands around each other’s shoulders and they all sang soulful tunes. After that, one of the congregants bought a round of beer for the whole bar.
After visiting the Fireplace, the congregants moved the makeshift memorial service to Dupont Circle, where again, they were not sure what to expect. However, as they gathered around the circle, people kept coming up to them and embracing them. One man that the congregants met there told them that his daughter sometimes prays with them. Others that were visiting from Los Angeles joined in full voice, as they clearly knew the Hebrew words to the song that they were singing.
As everyone was singing, Herzfeld looked over at some gay members of his congregation and saw tears flowing down their faces. Herzfeld said that while he felt the reality that we are living in a time of enormous pain, he also felt that the night was a learning experience for him, as he came to understand that this is an opportunity to learn that if we are going to survive, we all need each other.
Read the rabbi’s story here.