Students hold vigil for Pittsburgh shooting victims: ‘It could’ve been my family, it could have been us’

Members of the Temple community gathered in solidarity at the Bell Tower for the 11 congregants killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday.

Renee Kramer’s family attends a synagogue right down the street from the Tree of Life Congregation where 11 worshippers were killed on Saturday.

“What’s so amazing about the Squirrel Hill community is how quickly everyone was able to come together to be there for each other and raise money,” said Kramer, a Squirrel Hill native and a junior social work major.

Kramer’s family on her father’s side was raised within the Tree of Life, and she attended several of her friends’ bar and bat mitzvahs at the synagogue in Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood in east Pittsburgh.

Nearly 200 students attended a vigil at the Bell Tower on Tuesday night to remember the 11 congregants from the Tree of Life Congregation, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, who were killed by a gunman shouting anti-Semitic slurs on Saturday.

Students from Hillel at Temple University and Chabad at Temple University, both Jewish student organizations on campus, organized the ceremony.

The worshippers killed on Saturday include Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Daniel Stein, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, David and Cecil Rosenthal and Irving Younger and Melvin Wax, who led the Shabbat service, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

Kramer said it was a sad moment for the Squirrel Hill community, but also powerful to see the community open their homes to those affected by the shooting and their loved ones.

The shooting was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in United States history. There are roughly 1,800 Jewish students at Temple, according to Hillel’s website.

The Pittsburgh congregants were attending Shabbat services, a day of rest in the Jewish faith when the gunman entered the synagogue with multiple firearms and started shooting at the congregants. The gunman has since been charged with 11 counts of criminal homicide and 13 counts of ethnic intimidation, and prosecutors are intending to impose the death penalty.  

“The forces of evil need to be fought with the forces of goodness,” said Rabbi Baruch Kantor, director of Chabad at Temple. “It’s something much deeper than just current events. We need the world at large to be aware and increasing love of everyone.”

President Richard Englert said he attended the vigil to commend the Temple community’s support and activism for its Jewish students.

“All of us at the university were shocked and deeply saddened to hear of this past weekend’s events in Pittsburgh,” Englert said. “I am truly impressed and amazed at the extraordinary strength of our students in organizing this vigil, and to the speakers who have gone before me.”

Ruth Oshlag, a communication studies and English major, said even though her family is not members of the Tree of Life Congregation, her synagogue could easily have been targeted by the attack.

“When I was thinking about what I was going to share with everyone today, I already knew I was going to fail,” said Oshlag, a Pittsburgh native. “I was going to fail in sharing with you the feeling of hearing ‘There’s been a shooting in a synagogue in Pittsburgh,’ while you’re stuck in Philadelphia.”

“It could’ve been my family, it could have been us,” she said.

Jesse Laitman, the president of Chabad, said he’s upset and saddened, but not surprised because of the history of discrimination and attacks against Jewish people for thousands of years.

“There’s a song that goes, ‘I am a Jew, and I am proud, and that’s what I’ll always be,’” he said. “We cannot remove ourselves from Judaism. The only option is to embrace our Judaism, and try to bring light to the world where there is darkness, which is the prime objective of being a Jew.”

At the vigil, members of Temple’s Jewish community took turns sharing prayers and personal statements about the resilience of all Jewish people.

“They were proud Jews, who were practicing Judaism, people who made Jewishness their lives,” said Rabbi Daniel Levitt, the executive director of Hillel at Temple. “People who were upstanding citizens and contributing members of society who were cut down because their Jewishness was threatening to someone.”

“His attack was a threat to all of us,” Levitt said.

The shooting comes in the wake of rising inflammatory attacks on Jewish people across the U.S. and Europe. According to the Community Security Trust, a British charity ensuring the safety and security of the Jewish community in the UK, there have been more than 100 anti-Semitic incidents each month from January to June 2018.

In the U.S., anti-Semitic incidents increased 57 percent from 2016 to 2017, which includes offenses like harassment, vandalism and assaulting Jewish people, according to the Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish organization.

“This isn’t just a Jewish thing, this is an American issue, a worldwide thing,” said Oshlag, who has been to Tree of Life. “Back in Pittsburgh, I have Jewish and non-Jewish friends reaching out and showing support.”

Resources for students

During the event, several speakers encouraged people in the crowd to respect how others cope with the loss of fellow citizens and loved ones.

For non-Jewish people who want to show support for Jewish friends and community members, Laitman said it is important to “call out anti-Semitism when you see it and acknowledge anti-Semitism exists.”

“Every step back is an invitation for two steps forward,” Rabbi Kantor said. “The first thing we do is, we mourn, but know every Jewish family is family, and we are all one family. We need to be proud Jews, continuing to be proud of who we are, and not stepping down in the face of evil.”

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