Rite of passage

religious symbols.pngLooking north at night from my patio in the Cahuilla Hills of Palm Desert, you can see a solitary cross illuminated atop a hill along the Hopalong Cassidy hiking trail. It's visible throughout much of south Palm Desert.

Last evening, a melon-colored sky turned black through the soaring, west-facing window of the sanctuary at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church, a mile from my house. A huge cross decorated the wall next to the window, which framed the hill, and its crowning cross, for everyone in the sanctuary. Soon, Shabbat services for Congregation Har-El would begin, preceded by a memorial service for the victims of the shooting last week at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Lacking a branded home of its own, Har-El congregants gather at St. Margaret's for every meaningful occasion. The ark -- the cabinet where the Torah lives -- was prominently marked with a Star of David. It sat in front of the window, and the desert cross looming beyond.

I haven't been to a Shabbat service since the Reagan administration, and welcoming the Sabbath is not why I came here last night. I'm a Jew by culture, not by spiritual commitment. I don't believe in God, I don't believe in organized religion, but I believe in ritual. I believe in its communal value to heal, and if the slaughter in Pittsburgh was the worst of America, the community that is St. Margaret's/Har-El is the best.

Mary, my pew-mate, and a member of Har-El, said she seldom came to Shabbat services, but when she did, was one of about 15 or 20 worshippers. Last night, there were probably 100 people in the sanctuary. I saw no one younger than 50. Except for the guy in cargo shorts and sandals, and a couple of guys in dad jeans and tailored shirts, people were dressed up.

Rabbi Richard Zionts, whose other job is professor of history and philosophy at College of the Desert, introduced each guest speaker for the memorial, which was punctuated by the voice of Cantor Joseph Gole, who sang like a liturgical Andrea Bocelli.

First, we heard from Helene Galen, a local philanthropist who told us about her early childhood in Britain during World War II. She still remembers Nazi sympathizers marching through London; still remembers being given Horlicks to salve the 7-year-old's fear of bombs, because there was no candy. (Horlicks, if you're unfamiliar with the beverage, is to malted milk as Marmite is to, well ... food.) Galen remembered being sent away, like other children, to Wales, and her mother vowing, "I will never let them take you alive."

What she didn't mention, but what makes for the kind of story Jews love to tell, is that her family moved to the U.S. when she was a teenager, and she established her Southern California cred when she took a job at Frederick's of Hollywood. Later, she married the late Louis Galen, a diehard USC Trojan (as in Galen Center), who supposedly proposed to her at a USC-Notre Dame football rally.

Rabbi Kenneth Emert gave a rousing soliloquy that imagined the thoughts of the Tree of Life Congregants preparing for the bris that never happened because terror and tragedy intervened.

The Rev. Lane Hensley, the rector of St. Margaret's, reminded us that, "An attack on your people is an attack on us all. We stand with you ... in the truth of God."

Several Palm Desert officials were in attendance, including Councilwoman Kathleen Kelly (also an ordained minister in the Episcopal Church), the city manager and its legal counsel. Palm Desert Mayor Sabby Jonathan's remarks were more strident than soothing, but it's hard to disagree with his message: "We will not tolerate those who do not tolerate us."

Bruce Landgarten of the Jewish Federation of the Desert, also was more political than pacific, but his outrage at the Pittsburgh slaughter was universally shared. Jews have always been subject to hate and violence, he said, "But this? On Shabbat? In a sanctuary?"

The final memorial speaker was Saleh Ahmad Saleh, the gentle Imam of the Islamic Center Coachella Valley, who dubbed "salam" and "shalom" "first cousins." "As Muslims," he said, "we come to support our brother Jews," alluding to an Islamic saying: "Whoever kills a person kills the whole world. Whoever saves a person saves the whole world."

Congregants lit candles for each of Pittsburgh's dead, and Rabbi Zionts initiated the Shabbat service in his measured, Brian-Williams voice. Most people stayed for the whole program, and left feeling if not better, at least connected.

Remember that, America?

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