After mass shooting at Pittsburgh synagogue, elders in Wellesley temple look to the past
WELLESLEY — They came to the temple as they do on many mornings, alone or in pairs, filing in slowly past the friendly security guard out front and rows of flaming hornbeam trees in the quiet outdoor courtyard. It was Tuesday, which meant a packed schedule: two sessions of adult ed classes, a special lunchtime lecture, maybe a game of mah-jongg with friends.
Most are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s — the elders of Temple Beth Elohim. They sat around a table in the well-appointed library, leaning in as the featured speaker, Elyse Katz, a vivacious 91-year-old, talked of the temple’s earliest days. She had been a founding member of the congregation seven decades earlier, in the years soon after World War II and the Holocaust. Now she was among its most senior members.
The tale she told, of a few dozen determined Jewish families, newly arrived in a suburban WASP stronghold, praying in a borrowed Unitarian church while raising money for their own spiritual home, was stirring. Her talk this rainy morning, in the shadow of a distant tragedy that also felt so close, had been scheduled long in advance. But to the temple stalwarts who had come to hear it, it seemed an apt time to reflect, and to draw strength from their origins.
“If it wasn’t for the tenacity of people like Elyse and those with her, very few of whom remain, we would not be here today,” said Sandy Goldstein, a soft-spoken grandmother and longtime congregant. “Their desire to be here was so strong, at a time very different from today, and we need to have the same tenacity.”
The news from Pittsburgh had come 10 days earlier, shaking members of the temple to their core. The deadliest anti-Semitic attack ever at a synagogue in the United States, the mass shooting at the Tree of Life temple on Oct. 27 left 11 people dead, cut down as they gathered in the place they loved for worship.
The victims, like those who gather here in the Beth Elohim library each Tuesday, had been among the most active, dedicated members at their synagogue, the elders who kept the place humming. That kinship made the horror feel even more personal.
“I read the names of the dead, and I realized, I know these people,” Beth Elohim rabbi Joel Sisenwine told the crowd of hundreds at a special service after the mass killing. “They’re what we call the regulars, and I’ve seen them in every synagogue I’ve ever attended. . . . They’re the dedicated ones who come every Shabbat, often early, to welcome others into the synagogue, and into the beauties of Jewish life.”
Temple Beth Elohim is among the largest synagogues in New England, with close to 1,300 families worshiping in a stunning modern building by architect William Rawn. The regulars labor without fanfare, as they did in Pittsburgh, and in countless houses of worship and faith communities of all denominations. In interviews at Temple Beth Elohim, many elders expressed deep gratitude for the roles they play there; feeling blessed in their own lives, they are eager to invest their free time, knowledge, and good health in a place they think of as a second home.
“When I first joined, 35 years ago, I was looking for what I could get out of the temple — education for my children and so on,” said Goldstein, who runs the adult ed program and helps direct a small army of volunteers who cook, knit, and deliver chicken soup and silky-soft, hand-knit shawls to the sick. “Now I’m looking for what I can give back.”
Another longtime member, Ilene Stellar, serves as a kind of in-house matchmaker for new members, who can be overwhelmed by temple’s size and dizzying calendar. Behind the scenes, she introduces compatible newcomers, cultivates friendships, and when new faces appear at Friday night services, she sidles up and offers a warm greeting.
“It’s such a simple thing,” Stellar said, “but they always come back later and say how much it meant.” Many recent new members are over 60, grandparents who come to join their children and grandchildren.
The temple is a vibrant hub of senior social life and service, where regulars hold dinners, meetings, lectures, yoga, and canasta sessions. But in the immediate aftermath of Pittsburgh, it reverted to its primary purpose as a place of prayer and solace. Several members said their first impulse, on hearing the news, was to find their way to Beth Elohim as soon as possible.
Two years ago, as hundreds of Jewish institutions worldwide received bomb threats made by an Israeli teenager, Beth Elohim hired a security guard. Positioned outside the temple entrance, eyes on the teeming parking lot, he embodied the security concerns that had lurked long before the attack in Pittsburgh. Now, those fears seem more real than ever. A chasm in the temple’s history seemed to widen, between the time before the guard became a fixture, and the ever more uncertain present.
By last week, with the trees that encircle it glowing yellow-orange and the nation still reeling at the carnage, the Wellesley temple served two more important roles, said members: as a place to speak freely about what had happened — and as a respite from the news of hate and terror.
Just before Katz gave her history lesson Tuesday morning, a class on the history of rock and roll drew a crowd of older students to the library. They sat rapt as Marty Sleeper, a longtime congregant and retired educator, lectured on classic 1950s doo-wop and the birth of Motown. Gray and white heads bobbed in time to YouTube clips of the Drifters, the Mello-Kings, and Smokey Robinson, the class spontaneously singing along on the plaintive chorus of “The Tracks of My Tears.”
Behind them, etched in white on the front window of the library, the branches of a life-size “tree of life” reached skyward — a symbol from the book of Genesis, and the namesake of the Pittsburgh temple where the gunman rampaged. For the moment, though, the thoughts of the class were elsewhere: on music that spirited them back to their youth, summoning transistor radios and record hops, away from a present where unbearable things had happened.
“It’s an escape,” Sleeper said. “I hear that all the time from them.”
Yet the nostalgia of the 1950s is also tinged by memories of anti-Semitism. A short time after the rock and roll class, Katz was in the library recalling for the group a long-ago incident with a real estate agent who refused to sell her and her husband a home after finding out they were Jewish. Several others at the talk shared similar memories.
“The older people are much more accustomed to anti-Semitism, while the younger people are less experienced with it,” said Sisenwine, the rabbi, who made it a point to stand outside Beth Elohim on the Monday morning after the Pittsburgh shooting to greet members and gauge their anxiety. “The older folks would say this isn’t something Trump brought. This has been around for 2,000 years.”
What has changed, he said, is the response from the community around them. Veteran members of the temple said they were profoundly moved at the Friday night service held after the shootings when hundreds of members from nearby churches in Wellesley came to worship beside them.
“It’s very important, because it makes us feel less alone,” said Rabbi Robert Orkand, who joined Beth Elohim five years ago after retiring. “It’s a demonstration that anti-Semitism in this country is the exception rather than a norm.”
To many older members of the temple, the rise of mass shootings is more shocking than the resurfacing of anti-Semitism. A social action committee at the temple — formed after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut — has worked for several years on gun violence prevention issues. Bonnie Rosenberg, a Beth Elohim member for 45 years, is among the elders on that committee, fighting for a safer future for her eight grandchildren. She credited the temple with giving her an outlet for her passion on the issue — and for providing, over many decades, a grounding connection to the values that had shaped her.
Before leaving the temple last Tuesday, Rosenberg pushed through the door to the sanctuary and stood in the stillness. Daylight poured in through the soaring glass walls, designed to emphasize connection to the world outside, as Rosenberg took two small, pale gray stones from a copper bowl and placed them gently on a memorial wall where the names of her parents, Mollie and William, were engraved.
The gesture, a version of the Jewish tradition of leaving stones on graves, reminded her of cemetery visits in her childhood, when she was charged with finding the prettiest stones. It connected her busy, 21st-century life in the temple to everything, and everyone, who had come before her.
“Here, I remember the values that have shaped my family and ancestors for generations,” Rosenberg said. “It’s a way of getting my center again.”
On her walk out to the parking lot, she paused once more to greet the security guard.
Rosenberg said she decided long ago not to be afraid in a place so sacred and so dear to her. But she understood that others might not come at all without such safeguards — especially now — or would come while feeling less secure and less at home there.
“We wish he didn’t have to be here,” she said. “But we’re lucky, since he is here, that he’s the nicest guy.”