Rabbi raised near Pittsburgh led services at Flight 93 chapel
When Rabbi Fredric Pomerantz led a nondenominational memorial prayer service Sunday at the Flight 93 Interfaith Memorial Chapel near Shanksville, the experience unfortunately enough, was familiar to him.
“The service was spiritual, and it actually followed the form I used 10 years ago, just after Sept. 11, 2001,” said Pomerantz, a Pittsburgh area native and former associate rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation.
He was referring to a service for a young man, whose bar mitzva Pomerantz conducted in New Jersey, who was killed in the attack; his body was never found.
The same cantor and music director attended both memorial services with Pomerantz. According to the rabbi, they used essentially the same form and concentrated on using parts of the Hebrew Bible people of all faiths can use.
“It becomes a way of teaching about common roots,” he said.
The worshippers at Sunday’s service began with psalm 121, and they said the 23rd psalm together as the passengers on Flight 93 had done.
District Judge Arthur Cook of Somerset read from Deuteronomy and recited the names of the fallen heroes. Meanwhile, Pomerantz invited a gospel group to light candles.
According to Pomerantz, the service was well attended by a diverse crowd, including a busload of flight attendants, a kids’ choir from the North Hills and citizens ranging from people in business attire to bikers and casually dressed locals.
“I reminded the people the structure [the memorial chapel] was once a Lutheran church called Mizteh and about 150 years ago, the old German Lutheran preachers were called father,” he said. “But they knew the Hebrew Bible, and knew Hebrew, and named it Mizteh.”
Mizteh can mean either watchtower or a memorial fortress, a point Pomerantz worked into his remarks during the service.
“I told them that history and that it was a place from which people could look out and see the world,” he said. “Not only can you look over toward the site itself, it is a way of looking at the world after the sacrifice the passengers made. That whole area has now become the Mizteh, the watchtower, for freedom, for our liberty, as they fought as bravely as the citizens did at Bunker Hill in Boston.”
While it’s not enough to attend the service and remember the heroes, Pomerantz told the attendees they must “take the example of what they (the heroes of Flight 93) did and allow it to transform us through kindness, compassion and small acts of bravery.”
A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and Hebrew Union College, Pomerantz has served congregations in Pittsburgh, New Jersey, New York and England throughout his career. He also served on the Liturgy Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis from 1975-80, during which time he worked on the final compilation of Gates of Prayer, a siddur still in use in many Reform congregations.
Bishop Alphonse Mascherino, of the Flight 93 Interfaith Memorial Chapel, invited Pomerantz to lead the service. The two men first met when Pomerantz visited the chapel on its first anniversary, and he has been back several times since.
The chapel is not an official part of the Flight 93 Memorial at Shanksville.
“I was immediately struck by the power of the place, and there was something about it I couldn’t exactly name,” he said. “It reminded me of some places in south Jerusalem when you get off the road and go on those Jeep treks. It was and remains a powerful place, a holy place.”
One thing Pomerantz noticed on his first visit was a stained glass window in the chapel that used to be part of the old B’nai Israel synagogue in Greensburg, where he grew up.
“When I was a young boy I sang there in a boys’ choir,” Pomerantz recalled. “We only sang during the High Holidays. I remember looking up, seeing the focus of the sun come down through the window, where there was this huge Jewish star and the Ten Commandments.”
Mascherino fought to keep the window for the chapel because “there is nothing intrinsically religiously Jewish about a Jewish star the way there would be a crucifix,” Pomerantz explained. “So there are, in that window, the Ten Commandments, with which all people can identify, and the star, which is really a cultural Jewish symbol, not a religious one, and lights for Shabbat, which all faiths have. So even though it was from a synagogue, it still fit into the interfaith chapel.”
(Abby Gordon can be reached at email@example.com.)