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Interfaith service at Congregation Gates of Heaven offers support for Jewish communities near and far

Interfaith service at Congregation Gates of Heaven offers support for Jewish communities near and far

A message of unity, vigilance
Interfaith service at Congregation Gates of Heaven offers support for Jewish communities near and far
Dozens gathered at Congregation Gates of Heaven Sunday for a vigil to show their support for the local Jewish community.
Photographer: Marc Schultz / Gazette Photographer

SCHENECTADY -- Dozens of members of different faiths came together inside a Schenectady temple Sunday night to show their support of Jewish people in the wake of recent anti-Semitic crimes in both New York state and around the country.

The Schenectady Congregation Against Hate (SCAH), a coalition of leaders from a variety of faiths dedicated to addressing the growing levels of hatred in society, along with both the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York and the Capital District Board of Rabbis, co-hosted an interfaith vigil at Congregation Gates of Heaven. 

The service, titled United Together In Faith Against Hate And Intolerance, was designed to promote unity, community and tolerance after the Dec. 28 attack on a group of Hasidic Jews during a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey, a suburb outside of New York City. 

So many supporters attended the vigil that overflow rooms were necessary to fit them all.  

The vigil consisted of a series of short speeches of support and sympathy for both the local Jewish community, and the Jewish community at large delivered by a combination of local religious and political leaders in addition to activists condemning the Monsey attack. Songs and hymns focused on peace and unity, including a rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine," were sung between each one.

Speakers also not only expressed their gratitude for the presence of local police at the vigil, but also dismay over what they called a necessary security measure in light of recent events.

"It's a shame that we have to be here," Rabbi Matt Cutler of Congregation Gates of Heaven and a founding member of SCAH, said during the vigil's introduction.

During the vigil, Cutler not only condemned the attack in Monsey, but also cautioned against pointing fingers in an attempt to lay blame.  Instead, he said, the only way to move forward and prevent such attacks from happening, as well as anti-Semitism and hatred and racism in general, is to look inward and recognize that the task of fighting hate is everyone's fight.

"It doesn't belong to them, or to them," Cutler said, pointing out at his vast audience. "It belongs to all of us."

Representatives from local Christian, Sikh, and Muslim congregations were present at the vigil as well, along with community leaders of varying sexualities and backgrounds. Some of them demanded that, in the wake of increasing violence, that while unity is a start, crimes like the Monsey attack must be dealt with forcefully and immediately classified as hate crimes.

"Fear cannot, and will not, define us. Resilience and love will," Dave Siegfeld of the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York said, calling for prevention of anti-Seimitic attacks by utilizing education, vigilance, advocacy and outreach to people of different faiths.

Congressman Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, who also attended the vigil and delivered a message, said that the night's participants came to the event "profoundly saddened" but also ready to act to prevent such attacks from continuing to occur.

"Have we lost our sensibility?" he asked the audience. Tonko added that faith leaders but also elected officials must promote an agenda of "fairness and tolerance" in order to make a difference.

"We will make certain that as a community, we come together," he said. 

Others attended the service in their role of local advocates. Ang Morris, executive director of the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission, used her time to detail the deep roots of faith, advocacy and support that the local Jewish community has in the Capital Region.

Morris said that the Monsey attack was an attack defined by "hatred and fear."

"We must stand together in solidarity," she said.

Earlier in the day at the "No Hate, No Fear" solidarity march in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that an additional $45 million in funding is now available to help religious-based organizations, including schools and cultural centers, to strengthen their security measures to further protect themselves against hate crimes. 

Cuomo also announced that a new state police telephone and text tip line, 1-877-NO-HATE-NY, has been established to report possible or actual incidents of bias or discrimination.  

The suspect in the Monsey attacks, later identified by authorities as Grafton Thomas, entered the home of Hasidic Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, where he proceeded to slash at dozens of people inside the home with a machete, ultimately sending five people to the hospital. Federal prosecutors filed hate crime charges against Thomas last Monday. 

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