'I just couldn't go on,' B'nai Sholom's rabbi recalls hearing about the Tree of Life mass shooting

Zach Vance • Nov 25, 2018 at 8:01 PM

Editor’s note: Recent events regarding minority groups in American culture, politics and law enforcement prompted the Johnson City Press to take a deeper look at ethnic, religious and gender/sexual identities in the Johnson City area. This is the second in a three-day series of articles regarding that spectrum of marginalized populations.

Rabbi Arthur Rutberg and the B’nai Sholom congregation were in their synagogue Oct. 27 studying the Torah when they heard the dreadful news about the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. 

“The service proper was already finished, We were in the timeframe of reading the Torah and studying it when one of our members, one of our visitors really, got a notice on her cellphone. I’m not sure what caused her to look at her phone at that moment, but she did and she let everyone know,” Rutberg said. 

“At that point, I just couldn’t go on. I couldn’t keep on teaching the class. I just went home, turned on the news and was overwhelmed with the grief and the shock of what had happened.” 

Nancy Fischman, a former president of the B’nai Sholom congregation, said those inside the Blountville synagogue were visibly upset by the news. After all, the shooting was the first time in American history that Jewish people had been murdered while worshipping, American Jewish Archives Director Gary Zola told the USA Today Network.

“It’s still mostly sadness, grief and anger, too,” Rutberg said. 

In the days that followed, religious organizations from around the Tri-Cities showed their support to the local Jewish congregation by sending flowers and letters of solidarity to the synagogue.  

“We were very appreciative of the Christian community (and) the Muslim community. It’s been overwhelming and kind of like, ‘Wow.’ It’s been incredible. They’ve been very welcoming. ... Definitely, it was the one positive out of the whole horrific event,” said Rutberg, who also serves as president of the Northeast Tennessee United Religions Initiative. 

“Nationally, every Jewish organization was putting out statements, declarations and affirmations, but the truest, most heartfelt support was here locally.” 

Since the shooting, security within the synagogue has been on the collective mind of the congregation, but regardless, Rutberg said anyone and everyone is still welcomed into the synagogue. 

“You can walk into a service whenever you want to ... and it’s good and it’s bad. It’s a little bit unsafe not knowing who’s walking in, but our doors are open to anybody,” Rutberg said. 

Historically, Fischman said the B’nai Sholom congregation, originally founded in 1904, has experienced few major issues pertaining to safety. In her opinion, she said other Tri-Cities religious groups, particularly Christians, have very accommodating to the local Jewish population. 

“The neighbors who live around the synagogue, occasionally we get a call from someone saying, ‘Hey, it looks like you left your door open. Or someone is hanging around, you might want to check this out,’” Fischman said. 

“We’ve never really had to worry too much about security, but with this thing in Pittsburgh now ... I think the board is meeting to talk about it, what we need to do, or if we need to do anything.

“You know, this kind of thing, you never know when someone is going to go off the deep end. It’s happened in black churches, it’s happened in Hindu temples, in Christian churches in Texas. I just don’t know. People can go nuts, and they have access to these horrible weapons.” 

Rutberg has voiced concerns about arming congregants, but in the days following the Tree of Life shooting, he told a local television news station that he’s become “more ambivalent” to it.

Although B’ani Sholom is the only synagogue located between Boone, North Carolina, and Knoxville, just 45 individuals and families make up the congregation, with members from as far away as Kentucky, Greeneville and Rural Retreat, Virginia. 

“Because we are so small and because I’m the first permanent rabbi to be there in quite a while, they unfortunately have not had a long experience with regular sabbath services,” Rutberg said. 

To conduct a full worship service, the congregation must have a quorum — known in Judaism as a minyan — of at least 10 Jewish adults, which Rutberg said can be difficult at times.

“It’s unfortunate that with a small community, it’s rare to get the required number of 10 Jewish adults in order to conduct a full worship service with readings from the Torah and the other things that normally come along.

“So other congregations, let’s say larger ones, that would just be normal to have the right number of people and be able to do everything. For us, it’s like a treasure. It’s precious. It’s so rare for us.” 

The B’nai Sholom congregation’s history dates back to the 1880s when a Jewish man, Simon Gump, opened a clothing store in Bristol, Tennessee, and began holding services for the growing Jewish population in his home.

While Gump practiced Orthodox, Herman Hecht held a worship service in his Bristol home using the Reform prayer book. By 1904, the Reform and Orthodox groups in Bristol united and eventually formed the B’nai Sholom congregation, meaning House of Peace. 



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