As residents of Chattanooga, Tenn., continue to grapple with the killing of five members of the U.S. military last week, about three-dozen members of the Jewish community gathered for Shabbat services at the Chabad-Jewish Center of Chattanooga. Then, on Sunday morning, about 50 people came together for a vigil that included the reading of Psalms, Mishnah study, prayer and candle-lighting.
“I wouldn’t say that there is fear in the air,” says Rabbi Shaul Perlstein, who has co-directed the Chabad Jewish Center of Chattanooga with his wife, Rosie, since 2009. “There were a few people who did not come to Shabbat services because they were nervous, but for most people, it’s a jolting awakening that terror can happen anywhere, and that it can grow right in our own backyards.
“The attacks took place just a mile away from our new Chabad center,” he continued. “The shooter lived around the corner from our accountant and people saw him around and knew who he was. People are very, very emotional.”
As the community huddled together for comfort and support in the regular Kiddush reception that followed the services, the consensus formed that it would be appropriate to hold a memorial services near the Armed Forces Career Center, where the attack had begun.
“After Shabbat had ended, we began to plan,” says the rabbi. “We sent out an email at midnight inviting the community to an event the following morning at 11. Somehow, the word got out, and 50 people came to the memorial.”
Two Jewish veterans lit candles in memory of the victims, symbolizing the eternality of the soul. Psalms were read, lending an ancient voice to the feelings of grief and need for solace. The rabbi then taught the Mishnaic statement of Hillel the Elder, exhorting people to “be of the disciples of Aaron—a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah.”
“We can all distract ourselves with policies of more guns or less guns, but we will be missing the point,” the rabbi said to the assembled crowd. “More important is for us to learn from Aaron to draw in the disenfranchised and alienated members of our communities so that they don’t turn to violence and killing in the first place.”