Words shared by Jerry Fischer, JFEC Executive Director, at "Prayer in Response to Pittsburgh: A Community Interfaith Vigil" on October 29

What can we say? What can we pray?  What will make a difference? What will change our direction? For clearly we are going in the wrong direction.Jews have been killed.  Blacks have been killed. Gays have been killed. Muslims have been killed. 


It is too easy to explain the slaughter in Pittsburgh as the act of a crazy anti-semite. But this mad man had an agenda which he articulated on the internet. It was not just that all Jews must die. It was that Jews were responsible, through Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), for helping Muslim refugees come to America. He used this as a reason to kill Jews.

But what about anti-Semitism? It is as old as Western Civilization. It is religious; It is folk tales and blame; It is ethnic, political, and economic; It is racial: Nazi ideology which resulted in the Holocaust.

There were periods in our Jewish history where we found relief and respite from this hatred, especially in America.  


Why have we thrived in America? It is because our Jewish values have so much in common with the Founding Fathers of our country: “PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGHOUT ALL THE LAND UNTO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF” LEV. XXV X. is inscribed on the Liberty Bell.

Moses Seixas, the leader of the Jews of Newport to George Washington: 

"Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now behold a government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance - deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine…"

And George Washington’s response comes from the Book of Micah: “everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”  


But now we are afraid.  However, we shall not veer from our Jewish values.


What are the values? All humans are created in the image of God.

You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.


Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. 

“You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

That is why Jews were prominent in the Civil Rights movement.

American Jews played a significant role in the founding and funding of some of the most important civil rights organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and others.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and other rabbis marched arm-in-arm with Dr. King in his 1965 March on Selma.

And that is why Jews were prominent in the Labor Movement.


Samuel Gompers, a Sephardic Jew was one of the Founders of the American Federation of Labor and led it until 1924. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) of NYC and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of Chicago became the basis of the American Labor Movement.

And that is why Jews resettled refugees.


HIAS, the spark that lit the murderous flame in this killer, expresses our ideal of helping all refugees:

Founded in 1881 to help Jews fleeing the Pogroms in Russia, HIAS continued to work right through post WW II to aid Jews and other refugees.


From 1975 on, HIAS helped refugees around the world to build new lives in communities.  HIAS continues to resettle the most vulnerable refugees of all faiths and ethnicities from all over the world. 


Tikkun Olam. Repairing the world. Caring for the world. Transcending color, nationality, and ethnicity. This is our Jewish DNA.


We ask all leaders at home, and abroad, to refrain from making statements that are unsubstantiated, or worse, untrue, and are designed to make us anxious and afraid.


Return to the roots of our nation. Remember Liberty, and the Statue of Liberty.


Because of the slaughter at the Tree of Life synagogue our fears are heightened.   


However, this attack does not cower us. It strengthens usto fight on and continue our leadership to achieve a better America. And a better world.

May we remember those who were killed, injured and the first responders who were fearless in trying to stop the slaughter.  May we comfort the bereaved and may God bless the United States of America.


Attendees listen as Rabbi Marc Ekstrand offers his thoughts during a memorial gathering in response to the recent tragedy in Pittsburgh on Sunday, October 28, 2018 at Temple Emanu-El in Waterford. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Published October 28. 2018 9:05PM | Updated October 28. 2018 11:26PM

By Mary Biekert   Day staff writer

The Day - Vigil held in Waterford for Pittsburgh victims - News from southeastern Connecticut



Waterford — More than 100 people gathered for an evening of mourning at Temple Emanu-El Sunday night, singing songs of peace and reading poems to grieve for the 11 people killed when a gunman opened !re at a

Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday.


Congregations from both Temple Emanu-El and the Beth El synagogue in Waterford gathered as Rabbi Marc Ekstrand of Temple Emanu-El proclaimed an overarching message of hope and love in the wake of tragedy.

Ekstrand, who grew up in Pittsburgh, explained that Saturday’s tragic news arrived to his congregation in the middle of its weekly Shabbat worship service.


“We had that news and we couldn’t do anything but cry,” he said. “We had to carry on with the rest of our service. ... But there was still a heaviness hanging, and we thought maybe, we just needed to gather tonight and what happens.”


“Tonight is about giving some framework to how we are feeling,” he said.

Congregation Beth El Rabbi Rachel Safman also spoke at Sunday’s gathering, expressing thoughts of mourning before reading a poem she wrote the previous evening.

“To see a congregation engaged in parallel with our own in Shabbat prayer ... and to have that sacred space turned into a bloodbath is something that I still believe is still beyond any reckoning,” Safman said. “It comes as a source of heartbreak, but not of shock to us, that at some point in time, our luck might come to an end. And that this protective barrier ... might fall and render us vulnerable,” she said.

In a poem, Safman read, “Bring down the peace that reigns in the heavens to heal our broken hearts and make your presence known again for all those who have gathered in prayer.”

The shooting followed a number of mass shootings across the country over the past few years.


“We are gathered in the wake of what may be the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history. Other times it has been African Americans, or Sikhs, or Muslims, or members of the LGBTQ community, or too many oth Ekstrand said.

“What we know is this, that the fabric of our nation is fraying.”

Rabbi Marc Ekstrand shared his thoughts during a memorial gathering in response to the recent tragedy in Pittsburgh on Sunday, October 28, 2018 at Temple Emanu-El in Waterford. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)


Ekstrand read the names of all 11 victims killed in Saturday's attack. The victims included intellectually disabled brothers and a husband and wife. The youngest was 54 and the oldest was 97, according to the Associate


“We mourn as one people, with all people of conscience. We are in need of healing,” Ekstrand said, before ending the service with both congregations, as well as members of Waterford Police and Fire Departments, come together to hold hands and sing in unison.


“If we build this world from love, then God will build this world from love,” they sang.

An additional community wide “Prayers for Pittsburgh” vigil will be held at Temple Emanu-El at 7 p.m. Monday. Thee public is invited.


m.biekert@theday.com (mailto:m.biekert@theday.com)



Israel takes a step backward


By Jerry Fischer, JFEC Executive Director


“Jewish Federations stand shoulder to shoulder with the Druze community and urge Israeli legislators to work with the community as soon as possible to address their very real concerns,” the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) statement said.

“As strong supporters of Israel, we were disappointed that the government passed legislation which was effectively a step back for all minorities.”

Jewish organizations and movements have also expressed concerns that the law would set back their efforts to promote Jewish pluralism in Israel. Since the law was passed by the Knesset two weeks ago, it has already come under fire by the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and both the Reform and Conservative movements.


Many of you know my personal background, but I will encapsulate it here so that you will understand the foundation of my (and, thankfully, most American national Jewish organizations) profound disappointment with and strong opposition to the Nation State Bill that the Israeli Knesset passed by a majority of 62 out of 120 members.


I grew up in Washington Heights, NYC, in a “mixed” family. My paternal grandfather was orthodox, and the Cantor/Reverend of the Olive Street Shul in New Haven (and one of the founders of the Jewish Home there) before he moved to NYC and opened a wedding chapel. My father was a leader of the Conservative Congregation, Beth El, on 178th Street and Ft. Washington Ave, where I and my brother became Bnai Mitzva. My maternal grandmother was a secular Yiddishist, and all her children were Socialist Zionists, with two of them making Aliya, and one of them establishing a kibbutz, Sasa, in the upper Galil.


I tried to follow both paths. I went to the Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad in Jerusalem and on kibbutz from August 1966 - July 1967. I studied in Jerusalem and went to the tisch of a Rabbi in Katamon on Friday nights. (A Professor, Mike Rosenack, wrote me a reference letter and I got into the joint Columbia/Jewish Theological Seminary program. I went to CCNY instead.)


I went to soccer games on Shabbat afternoon. I was there for the Six Day War and helped kibbutz Amiad, on the border with Syria, build its underground garages and was given a bolt action rifle and assigned a defensive position on the perimeter of the kibbutz. I ignored my parent’s pleas to return to America but went back to Kibbutz Revadim in the center of the country just before the war started and dug trenches outside our cabins. Used them just once. Saw our triumphant and our shell-shocked Kibbutz members return from the war.


In my 34 years here as Federation Executive Director I have brought countless Missions to Israel. And I have developed close friendships with many Israelis, particularly in Afula/Gilboa, and through our Partnership projects. Many of them are Arab Israelis. Some are Circassian. When we have visited Israel in recent years we have scheduled a visit to a Druze family in Isfiya just outside of Haifa. We started to do that after two Druze policemen were killed attempting to defend a Yeshiva in Jerusalem. We had visited many Memorials to fallen Israeli soldiers, and met, in Afula, with families who had lost children in combat. It seemed right to express our appreciation to the Druze community for their losses.


Here is the key portion of Israel’s Declaration of Independence:

The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Here are the key passages from the Nation – State Law:

A. The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established.

B. The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.

C. The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.

Here is an excerpt from the Charter of the United Nations:

The Purposes of the United Nations are

  1. To maintain international peace and security, to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;

  2. To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;

  3. To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and

  4. To be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.


The problems are obvious:

The Nation-State Law refers to both the land of Israel and the State of Israel. Is it meant to preclude any possible Palestinian State?

The Declaration of Independence “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.”

The Nation-State Law seems to elevate the rights of Jewish Israelis above the rights of other Israelis.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his Inauguration address of 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression said:

“…let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. 


This law was passed out of fear, and through blackmail. The fear was of a fully integrated Israeli society, with many more cities becoming mixed Jewish-Arab cities. That fear is being expressed in concrete and sometime ugly ways in Afula. The blackmail was from the extreme right wing and religious factions of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government, who threatened to bring down the government if he did not support the bill. Those factions are the same ones who insisted that he abrogate the agreement made to share the Western Wall with all streams of Judaism.


The bill was endorsed by a Prime Minister who is under very active investigations for a variety of crimes. It was enacted despite the vigorous efforts of many, Israelis and Americans, to avert its enactment. And it is now being vigorously protested in Israel and in America. It was, as the JFNA statement says, “a step back”, and it must be reversed. Israel must march into the future without fear and without the political blackmail of the extreme segments of its population.


As I said to several of my non-Jewish Israeli friends who protested and lamented that they were not “Class B Israelis”: No, you are not! And Israel will eventually reverse this law because it is not a class B nation.

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The Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut (JFEC) is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) corporation that supports humanitarian, social service and educational efforts in Eastern CT, Israel and worldwide. Locally, we provide direct services to seniors, adults and youth through a variety of programs and activities, and we provide a living bridge to Israel through our Partnership programs.

A lay Board of Directors and officers governs the Federation.

The JFEC is a member agency of the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut.

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