At Ventnor synagogue once home to Tree of Life Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, congregants describe his ‘quiet strength’
In Ventnor, hearts were heavy over the burden now faced by their former cantor, a man of deep intellect and unassuming collegiality, a realist who developed a 60-minute truncated service to encourage attendance, a cantor who studied to be ordained as a rabbi.
VENTNOR — The rabbi's wife, Ellie Kremer, held open the door that would soon lock to greet the children arriving at Shirat Hayam for Sunday school. Some parents cautioned their children on the way in that not every other child would know all the details of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
Inside the lobby, Rabbi Jonathan Kremer and school leader Andrea Zakheim-Poetsch prepared their morning prayer with drums and a guitar as the circle filled in with their little charges.
It was a gentle morning ritual at this Jersey Shore synagogue, one where the horror of the previous day carried, if even possible, more of a personal jolt than what hit most Jews worldwide. The Tree of Life rabbi, seen in photos leaving the synagogue with his prayer shawl draped around his neck like an elegant scarf, his hand clutching his kippah to his head, police nearby, was their former cantor, Hazzan Jeffrey Myers.
The uncertainty over Myers' safety did not last long for most congregants and colleagues on Saturday; his son quickly posted on Facebook that the family was safe, and the photo of Myers being escorted from the synagogue traveled far and wide. But hearts were heavy over the unimaginable burden now faced by their former cantor, a man of deep intellect and unassuming collegiality, a realist who developed a 60-minute truncated service to encourage attendance, a cantor who studied to be ordained as a rabbi toward the end of his seven-year tenure in Ventnor and then accepted the rabbinical post in Pittsburgh in 2017.
A rabbi who in July wrote about the need for gun and mental-health legislation in the wake of the Parkland school shooting in an essay he called "We Deserve Better."
"The devastation of knowing how hard it is for him to now be there for his congregation" was what next hit congregant Leigh Turner, thinking about the enormity of the burden thrust upon Hazzan Myers, who was the cantor at both her daughters' bat mitzvahs. "The strength he'll have to show."
"He has a quiet strength," she added. "He's not a loud leader. That quiet strength will be a beacon for the congregation."
Jaime Epstein, another congregant, said of Myers: "I imagine him being very tall and distinguished and tending to the needs of his congregation." The photo of him leaving the synagogue wrapped in his prayer shawl exactly communicated the dedicated hazzan she knew.
Sheila Friedman, a past president of Shirat Hayam, which was known as Beth Judah before the congregation, like the Tree of Life, invited another congregation to take up residence, said she was angry.
"I can't imagine anything more horrendous than having the spirit of Shabbat rest and prayer shattered by shots and blood and killing," Friedman said. "The rise of anti-Semitism and the license for violent acts of hatred in this country cannot be tolerated for another day." As Myers did in his posting, Friedman called on the country's leaders to "change the national discourse."
"I am so sad today," she said. "My heart and soul are with all the families going through this unimaginable trauma and loss of innocent lives because they are Jews. Of course our community is relieved by the safety of Hazzan Myers and wish him the strength and wisdom to heal his broken congregation."
Ellie Kremer said the door to the synagogue would be "locked for today" as a temporary measure. As parents lingered longer than usual, she gathered them up to keep them around to make a minyan, the minimum of 10 people that would be required for the daily morning prayers.
The Kremers overlapped with Hazzan Myers for three years in Ventnor.
"Any Jew in any part of the country is going to feel the same," said Ellie Kremer. "But it feels personal."
Rabbi Kremer led the minyan and added in a "v'Etz Chaim b'Pittsburgh" — "and Tree of Life in Pittsburgh — to the regular Mi Sheberach, the prayer for healing. A community-wide prayer vigil of solidarity was planned for later in the evening. Rabbi Kremer lingered over Psalm 147, which speaks of how God "heals the brokenhearted, binds up their wounds."
"The message is scars are there forever and God is there to help those who survive live with those scars," he told the nine congregants gathered before him in the small chapel.
After, he reflected on the enormity of the aftermath of such a tragedy, in which 11 people were killed on Shabbat morning, most of them elderly congregants.
"On a personal level, I wish him the strength to support all the people who will need his support," Kremer said. "From a distance, it's hard to know what to do."