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Orthodox Rabbi Reaches Out To Gay Community

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, we just heard some members of our roundtable say they don't think they've seen quite the same outpouring of support as they've witnessed after other tragedies, but there have been some. And one in particular caught our attention. It involves a local rabbi here in Washington, D.C, Shmuel Herzfeld, of Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue. He told us he didn't know about the shooting until later in the day because it happened early in the morning on a Jewish holiday.

SHMUEL HERZFELD: We don't use electronics on our holidays and on our Sabbath. This past week was the holiday of Shavuot from Saturday through Monday night - late. But walking to synagogue on Sunday afternoon, a neighbor told me what had happened.

MARTIN: The news hit him hard. So Rabbi Herzfeld decided to ask members of his congregation to go with him to a local gay bar as a gesture of support. He compared it to sitting Shiva, a Jewish tradition.

HERZFELD: During Shiva, the mourners sit and other people come and embrace the mourners. And the point is, not that the people who are visiting have answers or a way of removing the pain that people are feeling, but just a way of connecting and saying, we are with you together.

MARTIN: A way of saying we share your pain and our lives are not going on as normal, he told us. But for the rabbi, going to a gay bar - or any bar for that matter - was not a normal experience.

HERZFELD: It was a little intimidating for me. I really don't remember the last time I was in a bar. I think it was right after I graduated high school.

MARTIN: But as is so often the case, mom came through.

HERZFELD: I was lucky that my mother was with me. My mother, being a woman of tremendous soul - she saw a person, and she just went up to this man and told him why we were there. And he broke down in tears, and he said my cousin was murdered in Orlando. And the next thing I knew, my mother was embracing this total stranger.

MARTIN: The man invited the rabbi and congregation inside where they were warmly welcomed.

HERZFELD: The bartender was nice enough to shut the music for a while, and then we all put our arms around each other and prayed for the families of the deceased.

MARTIN: The group then moved to Dupont Circle, a famous D.C. landmark, where other mourners had gathered.

HERZFELD: And we had embraced people who are strangers to us, and we joined together in singing a song "How Goodly And How Beautiful."

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

HERZFELD: When a tribe worked all together in peace, when the whole world will come together as an act of unity, that's a beautiful thing. And that's the small thing that we were trying to do.

MARTIN: That was Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. And we'd like to mention he stopped by our studios yesterday in advance of the Sabbath. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.