Thousands attend vigil to support, foster healing after Pittsburgh synagogue shooting
Jeffrey Myers, Cheryl Klein and Jonathan Perlman, the three rabbis of the three congregations that share space in the Squirrel Hill synagogue targeted by a gunman during Saturday worship, stood before members of their flocks a day later and vowed to overcome unspeakable evil.
“What happened yesterday will not break us. It will not ruin us,” said Perlman, of New Light Congregation.
“We will not let hatred be the victor. Never. We are the survivors,” said Klein, of Congregation Dor Hadash.
“We’ve been trying to stop hate since the earliest days of the Bible,” said Myers, of Tree of Life Congregation.
Members of all three congregations on Sunday filled a special section in the center of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland. Surrounding them were thousands of heartbroken people from a shattered city and region, dignitaries from near and far -- including Gov. Tom Wolf and representatives from the White House and Israel -- and clergy of myriad faiths represented in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania.
“I just wanted to connect with other people in the community,” said Ricky Walters, 48, of Overbrook. “I think all of us don’t know where to turn.”
In droves, they turned to the Community Interfaith Vigil held at Soldiers & Sailors. The event lasted more than an hour and a half.
People filled the hall’s 2,355 seats. Hundreds of others lined the walls and entrances, many standing three or more deep. Hundreds more waited outside, unable to get in.
“I think when you see it in other places, you think, ‘Oh, that could never happen here.’ But it could happen anywhere,” said Amber Stacey, 28, of Wilkinsburg.
Stacey said she provides education programs for many Jewish groups through her job with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.
“It’s very likely that I’ve come into contact with people were touched by this,” Stacey said as she started to cry.
Tim Stevens, director of the Black Political Empowerment Project, said there was never a question as to whether he’d attend the vigil. It was personal for him, he said, because he knows many in the Jewish community. He said it should be personal for everyone.
“There are just some things you have to do,” he said. “There are just some places you have to be.”
When no more could fit inside the the hall, hundreds chose to stand outside, filling the walkways and the lawn, listening to the vigil via loudspeaker.
Joan Shoemaker stood alone, holding her umbrella in the rain and wiping away tears. A Catholic, she said that didn’t matter today.
“It’s just such a crime against humanity,” said Shoemaker, of Oakland. “I wanted to be here to support the people who lost others.”
Those who stood outside did so through off and on rain that was heavy at times. Many stayed for hours, and as people left, others moved forward to fill their spots.
Robert Kelley, a Carnegie Mellon University professor, brought his therapy dog, Robos.
He said it has been a joy helping those in grief and shock -- something he has been leaning on since he, too, knew one of the victims.
“I don’t know what I’m feeling,” Kelley said. “I have all sorts of feelings.”
Robert Bowers, a Baldwin resident, is accused of entering Tree of Life on Wilkins Avenue before 10 a.m. Saturday. Armed with an assault-style rife and three semiautomatic handguns, he opened fire, according to court documents. Soon after, eight men and three women were dead. Six others were wounded, including four police officers. When caught, Bowers reportedly told police that he “wanted all Jews to die.”
U.S. Attorney Scott Brady in Pittsburgh said Sunday night that federal prosecutors intend to pursue the death penalty against Bowers, the Associated Press reported.
Myers said he was one of 12 people in the sanctuary for a service that began at 9:45 a.m. Within minutes, the shooting started. He helped pull some people who were seated up front to safety. Seven others were shot dead.
“My holy place has been defiled,” Myers said. “We will rebuild.”
Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County chief executive and a Squirrel Hill resident, called his neighborhood of 35 years “a special place.”
“Bigotry will not win. Hatred will not win,” Fitzgerald said, punctuating each word. “That attack at Tree of Life was not an attack just on them, it was an attack on the city and this entire region. We all come together as one.”
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto referred to Saturday -- the deadliest attack on Jews in the United States ever -- as “the darkest hour of our city’s history.” But he said it was right to come together to mourn and support the families help them through the “horror they are living.”
“We’re Pittsburghers, and that’s what we do,” he said.
Anti-Semitism will not be accepted in Pittsburgh or the region, Peduto said.
“We will recognize this moment as a moment when this nation needs to heal. And the nation needs to come together under the common sense of how we stop events like this from happening ever again,” Peduto said, drawing his third standing ovation from the crowd. “We will eradicate any type of hate throughout this city and work for commonsense laws when it comes to stopping this type of violence. And we will do it not only because we are Pittsburgh, but because we are one.”
In the Bible, the tree of life grows 12 kinds of fruit and its leaves are for the healing of the nations, said the Rev. Liddy Barlow, of Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh-based ecumenical group that represents Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
“If that’s what the tree looks like, imagine what the neighborhood looks like. I think it looks like Squirrel Hill,” Barlow said, noting the neighborhood’s vast diversity. “That is God’s dream of Eden restored.”
Wasi Mohamed, executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, announced that an online fundraiser had already collected more than $70,000 from Muslims for the Tree of Life and the victims’ families.
“We’re not going to stop,” Mohamed said, noting the support Muslims in Pittsburgh received from the Jewish community following 9/11 and the presidential election. “We’re just repaying the favor.”
Members of the black and Jewish communities have a lot in common, including slavery, said the Rev. Dr. John C. Welch of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and chaplain to city police. Both also have led the charge for civil rights and social justice, he said.
“We are the Steel City. And steel may no longer be rolling off of the platforms as it used to, but the strength of that steel still remains and it has been embodied by us,” Welch said. “Our goal is to work together to make this city a model city of confirmation where everyone feels welcome and can call Pittsburgh home. Our goal is to make sure Pittsburgh is a place where immigrants can call it their sanctuary or refuge if they want to.
″... Our goal in working together is to make sure Pittsburgh is a place where we can triumph over terrorism and tragedy and where we can be the city of bridges that brings together what others want to divide.”
In the hall built to honor America’s military service men and woman throughout history, the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address fill the large space above the stage. On Sunday, Perlman of New Light Congregation noted part of that famous speech -- which happened to line up with a screen displaying the names of the 11 victims.
The words Lincoln spoke in Pennsylvania on Nov. 19, 1863, carried similar meaning but for a different group some 155 years later: “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”