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June 16, 2016 6:52 am

DC Rabbi Describes ‘Powerful, Moving, Raw’ Experience of Accompanying Congregants to Gay Bar in Solidarity With Victims of Orlando Massacre

avatar by Shiryn Solny

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A vigil in Washington, DC for the Orlando massacre victims. Photo: Wikipedia.

A vigil in Washington, DC for the Orlando massacre victims. Photo: Wikipedia.

A Washington, DC rabbi described on Wednesday the heartwarming reception he and his Jewish congregation experienced when they visited a local gay bar to show solidarity with victims of the Orlando massacre.

“Everyone in the bar embraced each other,” Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the head Ohev Shalom Synagogue, wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post. “It was powerful and moving and real and raw.”

The deadly terrorist attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. took place in the early hours of Sunday morning, during the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. Rabbi Herzfeld said that when he heard about the attack, he announced from the pulpit that as soon as the holiday ended the following evening, he would escort congregants to a gay bar to express solidarity.

“We just wanted to share the message that we were all in tremendous pain and that our lives were not going on as normal,” he said. “Even though the holiday is a joyous occasion, I felt tears in my eyes as I recited our sacred prayers.”

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As soon as the holiday ended on Monday at sundown, a dozen yarmulke-wearing congregants, some of whom were gay, went to a bar called Fireplace, which was recommended by someone in the synagogue. Because the bar is frequented mainly by gay African Americans, the group didn’t know what to expect. But when they arrived at the bar, they were welcomed with open arms.

“My mother, who was with me, went up to a man who was standing on the side of the building. She told him why we were there. He broke down in tears and told us his cousin was killed at Pulse. He embraced us and invited us into the Fireplace,” the rabbi recounted, adding that the congregants talked with everyone in the bar and discovered they had much in common.

“One of the patrons told me that his stepchildren were actually bar-mitzvahed in our congregation. Another one asked for my card so that his church could come and visit,” the rabbi said. “The bartender shut off all of the music in the room, and the crowd became silent as we offered words of prayer and healing. My co-clergy Maharat Ruth Friedman shared a blessing related to the holiday of Shavuot, and she lit memorial candles on the bar ledge. Then everyone in the bar put their hands around each other’s shoulders, and we sang soulful tunes. After that, one of our congregants bought a round of beer for the whole bar.”

Afterwards, the congregants went to the outdoor makeshift memorial service at Dupont Circle in Northwest Washington, where, the rabbi said, “People kept coming up to us and embracing us.” Some even sang Hebrew songs with the group.

Rabbi Herzfeld reflected that Monday night was “a tremendous learning experience” for him.

“I felt the reality that we are living in a time of enormous pain,” he said. “I learned that when a rabbi and members of an Orthodox synagogue walk into a gay African American bar, it is not the opening line of a joke but an opportunity to connect; it is an opportunity to break down barriers and come together as one; it is an opportunity to learn that if we are going to survive, we all need each other.”

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