In the flicker of a yahrtzeit candle, congregants and community guests rose and draped their arms around each others’ shoulders. As Cantor David Berger strummed the first chords of “Oseh Shalom,” men and women began to sway.
“This prayer is about peace,” Berger said. “It’s about a peace that has no room for intolerance, no room for hatred or violence.”
Few of the 150 or so visitors at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) the night of Aug. 5 were unfamiliar with those concepts. That’s why many gathered at the predominantly gay and lesbian synagogue for a service memorializing the victims of the Aug. 1 attack on a Tel Aviv LGBT teen center — to offer solidarity and universal support.
“People need to come together as a community when we experience acts of violence like this,” said Rabbi Lisa Edwards, the spiritual leader of BCC, after the service. “It feels personal, even though it occurred so far away. So many of us in Los Angeles feel very attached to Israel, and in the worldwide LGBT community we feel very attached to one another. It’s about speaking out for those kids [in Tel Aviv] and also knowing that none of us are very far away from the possibility of something like that happening to us.”
Shock and sorrow over the incident were still fresh at the memorial service. Four days prior, a masked gunman broke into the basement meeting room of a gay and lesbian teen support group and opened fire on the crowd, killing two people and wounding a dozen others. Nir Katz, 26, a counselor at the center, and Liz Trobishi, 16, a visitor, were shot dead at the scene, and a third victim died later at a hospital.
Israeli lawmakers and religious leaders condemned the shooting, which sparked rallies and vigils in Tel Aviv and in cities throughout Europe and the United States. Many of the teenage victims of the attack — the worst against Israeli gays and lesbians on record — had not yet come out to their families.
The assault “came from a place of pure hate,” said Joel Kushner, director of the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. The community center was a “sacred space” for those who sought refuge there — the only place where some could truly be themselves.
“Those most vulnerable of youths had already traveled so far, physically and emotionally, to get to that meeting. Now, their souls have been injured, and some have lost their lives,” Kushner told the crowd during the service. “If you have thought back on what it was like to be young and gay or lesbian, bisexual or questioning, or if you thought, ‘that could be my kid,’ now is the time to think about that again. They are us, many years ago. They are our children; they are our family members and friends.”
Photographs of Katz and Trobishi adorned the podium as a roster of Jewish and LGBT community leaders addressed the crowded sanctuary. Representatives from each of the program’s sponsors spoke, including BCC, Congregation Kol Ami, the Metropolitan Community Church-L.A., The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.
Andrew Kushner, The Federation’s associate executive vice president of community affairs, said the agency will be providing financial support to the Tel Aviv LGBT community. Costs include extra security around the center, extra staff to run an emergency crisis hotlineand counseling for the teens who witnessed the shooting and the victims’ families.
“Frankly, tonight, all of our hearts are broken,” he said.
Israeli Deputy Consul General Gil Artzyeli said the attack stood in “complete contradiction to the values of the vast majority of Israeli society,” and expressed hope that the gunman would be caught.
Speakers read quotes from the prophet Isaiah and passages from Israeli poets offering images of hope amid darkness and despair. Some visitors held hands during the service and dabbed at their eyes with tissues.
David Tiktin, a West Hollywood resident and member of Kol Ami, recalled touring Israel last summer and visiting LGBT organizations and centers. “It’s all the more shocking and sad to see that they’re still vulnerable to this kind of attack in 2009,” he said.
As a lesbian Latina, BCC member Yael Gillette said she knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of hateful acts and felt personally injured when she heard about the Tel Aviv attack. “Anytime anyone gets hurt because they are different is unacceptable,” said Gillette, a mother of three. “There is a global need for understanding.”
For many, the most difficult question after the service was “What next?”
The short-term answer, said HUC-JIR’s Joel Kushner, is tzedakah. He urged the L.A. Jewish community to give what it could to allay the costs of repairing the basement facility where the attack occurred — it will take needed funds for services as basic as fixing the center’s furniture and cleaning its blood-spattered floor.
In the long run, local Jewish leaders said the tragedy highlighted a need for the LGBT community to do more outreach and give their identity a face to which others can relate.
“When you forget that someone is human, you can’t connect to their humanity — that’s how acts of hate and violence are perpetuated,” said Elissa Barrett, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. “When we talk to someone face-to-face and show them our humanity, it’s harder to hate.”