After Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Utah rabbi wonders how to protect his congregation and prays ‘that the world will regain its sanity’

Deb Polk holds a sign as she gathers with others for a vigil in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

When the sun went down Friday evening, Rabbi Avremi Zippel — like many Jews — unplugged for the Sabbath until nightfall Saturday. No TV. No internet. No news.

The next morning, Zippel went to his Salt Lake City synagogue as normal. About 10 a.m., he was talking with someone in the lobby, and a man approached him, apologizing for breaking the sanctity of the Shabbat. But, he said, something had happened, and he thought his rabbi should know: There had been a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

“My heart stopped in an instant,” Zippel said.

By Saturday night, police said 11 people were killed in the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue during a baby-naming ceremony. At least six others were injured, including four police officers. The alleged assailant, Robert Bowers, reportedly made anti-Semitic remarks during the shooting. Police are investigating the attack as a hate crime. Bowers was taken into custody and charged.

Zippel said in those early moments after hearing the news, he thought of his brother, who is attending a yeshiva (a Jewish school that focuses on studying traditional religious texts) in Pittsburgh. He also reflected on his congregants at Chabad Lubavitch of Utah and what he owed them. He wondered how he could make them feel safe on a day when “Jews around the world are tremendously shaken up.”

Should he lock the synagogue doors? Should he call police for extra security, just in case?

In the mental whirlwind, Zippel said he decided the best way to serve and protect his congregation was to not succumb to the fear, but instead to do everything he could to make his flock feel loved, safe and welcome in the synagogue, both logistically and spiritually. That meant no police presence. And a whole lot of prayer.

“We pray for peace. We pray that those who need healing on any level from the tragedy will be able to find that healing, that comfort in God. And,” he said, “we pray that the world will regain its sanity.”

Zippel said he also prayed for the concept of mass shootings to stop being something “we’re sadly familiar with.”

In the short term, Zippel planned a Pray for Pittsburgh vigil for 6:30 p.m. Monday at his synagogue at 1760 S 1100 East. Long term, he said, he hopes his congregation can benefit from federal grants meant to help nonprofits, like places of worship, install security systems.

Aside from that, Zippel said he just has to be there for his congregation.

“The onus is really on us faith leaders at this very, very painful and crucial time," he said, “to ensure that every single person in the world feels welcome and safe in a place of worship.”

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rabbi Benny Zippel, left, wife Sharonne Zippel, Sheina Zippel and her husband, Rabbi Avremi Zippel, at the Chabad office in Salt Lake City Friday May 11, 2018. Chabad Lubavitch synagogue is celebrating its 25th anniversary in Utah.

The United Jewish Federation of Utah released a statement Saturday saying it was “horrified and saddened” by the shooting. The group offered prayers for victims, their families and the entire Pittsburgh Jewish community.

“We condemn and abhor all acts of violence but especially hatred based on religion or race," the statement said. “We grieve those martyred while praying on our day of rest and peace and are grateful to the law enforcement officers who defended their right to life and their freedom of religion.”

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Pittsburgh native, also prayed for his hometown on Saturday. He released a statement saying the mass shooting of Jews, on the Jewish holy day, in a Jewish place of worship is a reminder of evil in the world — and why we need to fight it with courage and love.

“The hatred in this man’s heart has no place in a society founded on the ideal of religious freedom,” Hatch said in a statement, calling the attack a “horrific act of violence.”

Hatch was born in Homestead Park, a borough of Pittsburgh, in 1934, according to his congressional biography.

Mormon Women for Ethical Government also spoke out against the mass shooting, as well as an attack earlier in the week in Kentucky, where police are investigating a possible hate crime after Gregory Bush, a white man, allegedly killed two black people at a grocery store after trying and failing to enter a predominantly black church nearby.

“We express our deepest sorrow, anguish, and righteous indignation on behalf of those whose lives have been lost or threatened, as well as their families and loved ones. In civil society, there is absolutely no place for racial, religious, nationalist, political, or any other form of identity-based hatred or violence,” according to the statement released Saturday.

The group called the current contentious political climate in the U.S both the “cause and effect” of “serious societal sickness," and said society must “at long last acknowledge the very real danger and cost of reckless rhetoric.”