Charleston Reflections, Abe Schachter-Gampel

Abe Schachter-Gampel, NYU '12

It’s been close to 24 hours since I arrived home from Charleston thanks to the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU. Family and friends want to know about my experience. How was it? Can you tell us a story, share a reflection? It’s hard to formulate the right words or retell the best story. I cannot confidently answer that I needed to be in Charleston. Underlying all of this is the question: was it worth it? I don’t know how to answer the question, but I can share with you some of the most powerful moments for me in Charleston.

At a communal vigil at the College of Charleston, I spotted a number of Jews sitting a few rows ahead me. I approached them and introduced myself. My name is Abe and I’ve come from New York to show my support. After I had finished speaking with them, one of the men held me tightly and hugged me. There were tears in his eyes when he told me that he was so appreciative that I had come.

A group of Jews gathered in front of the church and recited Kadish for the 9 victims who had been killed. After the final Amen of Kadish, I started to sing “Oseh Shalom.” Our voices grew stronger as we continued to chant in Hebrew “Oseh Shalom Bimromav Hu Ya’aseh Shalom Aleinu,” “God who brings peace to His Universe will bring peace to all of us.” There were only a few familiar with the song, but the other Jews and non Jews that surrounded us hummed and swayed to the rhythm. After the song had concluded, an elderly black man shouted, “Amen.”

Towards the end of Shabbat, our group joined Brith Sholom Beth Israel synagogue for seudah shelishit. As I was looking for a chair, an older man named Joe, beckoned in Yiddish, “zitz zikh, “sit down.” I greeted him in Yiddish and we began to have a conversation. His eyes lit up, as we began to speak in his Mame Loshen. Joe was a Holocaust survivor who had been in Auschwitz. After the war he found out that he had an aunt who was living in Charleston. He has spent the last number of decades sharing his story all over the state. When we began to speak about the 9 who were murdered at the Church, he told me in his Eastern European accent, “Mir teylen a enlekh geshikhteh,” “we share a similar history.”

Was it worth it? I’m still not sure I know how to answer that question, but if I have learned anything thus far as a rabbinical student, it is that the personal, emotional relationships are what make anything worth it. Holding the hands of those next to me and singing “We Shall Overcome” at the interfaith prayer vigil made it worth it. Embracing strangers in love and solidarity made it worth it. Allowing someone to share their story, share their pain, as well as their hope, made it worth it.