The pediatric neurologist, his kippah firmly on his 80-year-old head, came to Beth El Synagogue for the same reason some 1,500 other Omahans did Monday night.
Dr. Fred Kader came to pay respects to the dead, the 11 Jews slaughtered Saturday in a similar house of worship in Pittsburgh by a gun-wielding, hate-spewing man.
Kader came to pray, to say kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
He came to be in solidarity with a mix of Omaha Jews, Christians, Muslims and nonbelievers whose response to the massacre was to come together.
Perhaps mostly, Kader came as a symbol of light in darkness. A Holocaust survivor whose arguably improbable existence shows hope.
He wasn’t singled out during a moving 90-minute service led by Rabbi Steven Abraham of Beth El and featuring 10 other faith leaders, including a Jesuit priest, an Episcopal minister and a board member of the Afghan Islamic Community Center of Omaha.
But the Holocaust, in which at least 6 million Jews in Europe perished, was a reference point for speakers who urged faith, steadfastness and courage in the aftermath of Saturday’s synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, which is being called the worst act of violence committed against Jews in the United States.
“Throughout history, Jews have been the focus of hate and vitriol. All too often, when our relatives looked around for support, there was no one to call,” said Abraham. Surveying the standing-room-only crowd, he added: “Please know how honored we are as members of the Omaha Jewish community to call you our friends and our neighbors.”
Indeed, that’s how the people who gathered saw each other.
“I’m Jewish tonight,” said Mark Koesters, who wore a black kippah, or yarmulke, on his head.
Koesters is Catholic — he was my old religion teacher at Marian High, where he still teaches religion. He told me he takes Marian students to Beth El on field trips to learn about Judaism and the Holocaust, but on Monday night he wanted to pray for the victims.
“It’s just overwhelming,” he said.
Abraham referenced the story in the Torah of how Abraham welcomed strangers into his tent and how that is a lesson for all of us to stretch out our hands to people we do not know in need of shelter. Yet that act of hospitality in Jewish Americans’ long tradition of welcoming refugees appears to be a motivation for the 46-year-old gunman who has been arrested and is facing dozens of criminal charges.
Beth El beefed up its security Monday night with at least half a dozen Omaha and Waterloo police officers. Abraham made a point of thanking them, and the room applauded. But a woman leaned over to me and whispered: “It’s horrible they even have to be here.”
The message seemed trifold:
- Grief: “As a Muslim and even more importantly as a fellow human being, I offer my deepest condolences to the families,” said Feroz Mohmand, who had been a rising star in his native Afghanistan until forced to escape. He sits on the board of the Afghan Islamic Community Center of Omaha.
- Caution: “The slaughter in Pittsburgh in the midst of a joyous celebration is a stark reminder. ... Anyone who tells you that hateful speech does not lead to hateful action is wrong. Words matter. Words unleash passions,” said Jim Fried, president of the Anti-Defamation League.
- Call to action: “The people that need to be here are not here. So what do we do?” asked Rabbi Ari Dembitzer of Beth Israel Synagogue. The answers given were these: Don’t let these 11 lives go to waste. Stand up to hate. Find ways in your own lives to change starting with outreach to someone you do not know. The stranger. Hate prospers in the space where we see each other as other.
Afterward, I met Kader, who survived the Holocaust several times, starting with his own mother pushing him away, at the tender age of 4, at a train station in Belgium, telling him to go. She died. He lived, he said, “by the grace of God and help from individuals who put their necks in the noose.”
And he became a helper of children. He did not let the tragedy and terror ruin him.
“My parents wanted me to be a decent human being,” he said.
Looking around the emptying synagogue, Kader smiled. He saw great hope in the fact that such a large crowd had come in a show of support. He saw it as a sign that perhaps this could be the beginning of the end of hatred toward Jewish people.