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Hundreds hold vigil for victims of Squirrel Hill synagogue shooting

November 18, 2018

Hundreds of people gathered at a candle-light vigil Saturday evening to mourn those dead and wounded in a horrific massacre at the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill.

A sea of umbrellas dotted the intersection of Forbes and Murray avenues, as people tried to keep their lights glimmering in the rain.

“It’s comforting knowing that everyone’s coming together,” said Hannah Shapiro, a member of the synagogue but was not there at the time of the shooting. “It’s scary because a lot of people including myself grew up in the synagogue. It could have been any of us. I’m just thankful that a lot of people are still here but mourning the loss of the people who aren’t.”

Shapiro said she knew some of the victims and became emotional when thinking about them.

Young people led the crowd in songs after the ceremony. They sang about peace and healing.

One song described the world as a very narrow bridge and encourages those crossing it to not be afraid, a message that Shuli Dernis, 14, hopes the community will keep in mind in the coming days.

“It’s important for us to move forward and to never let this happen again,” she said.

Young people were eager to bring the community together after this incident and to help each other find the words to talk about it, she said.

“There’s no words strong enough for this,” she said of the pain and horror it has caused.

She never expected something like this to happen in her neighborhood.

“I don’t know what happens in those communities in the days afterwards,” she said. “I don’t know what comes next.”

The Rev. Vincent Kolb of the Sixth Presbyterian Church opened the house of worship’s doors, across from the vigil site, for a time of early prayer and song prior to the event.

A crowd packed the pews, lined along the walls and out the entrance. They sang “Kumbaya” and applauded as speakers talked about togetherness.

“It is important for us to stand in solidarity with our Jewish friends, family and neighbors,” Kolb said. “In spite of our religious, ethnic, political and economic differences, despite the diversity of our genders and our sexualities, our histories and our experiences, we are one human family. We gather tonight to affirm our kinship with all our fellow human beings.

“We gather because we are heartbroken. We also gather to affirm our resolve that we have zero tolerance for anti-Semitic speech, zero tolerance for anti-Semitic behavior (and) zero tolerance for anti-Semitic violence.”

Islamic Center of Pittsburgh Executive Director Wasi Mohamed asked people in the church if they were angry. All but few raised their hands.

“How can we not be?” he said. “It’s terrible ... We all feel that hatred right now, and the person who committed this act is a hateful person. Hatred is a disease of the heart, (that’s) what we believe. If you let it grow and we water that seed, what could happen to all of us? We don’t want to be like them.”

Mohamed said to try to turn negativity into positivity, and that he “cannot walk 10 feet in the city without seeing something great the Jewish community has done.”

People gathered in the grassy hills of the church to catch a glimpse of vigil speakers.

Taylor Allderdice High School seniors Rebecca Gordon and Russell Petro attended the vigil.

Both said they wanted to show their support.

“There is so much more love than there is hate,” Gordon said. “I felt sadness and I felt this tragedy, but I felt no hate. We need to change our attitudes. We need to spread more love and we need to vote.”

Petro said he goes to Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill and learned about the attack from a friend.

“I feel that we need to understand others and we need to be able to find other ways to help others so that things like this do not happen again,” he said. “I couldn’t help but feel nothing but fear, and I frantically looked up what temple it was. It’s still just as painful, and still just as scary and still just as terrible.”

Sophia Levin, 15, was one of the young people who helped to organize the vigil.

“We wanted to bring people together to tell them that they didn’t have to be alone,” she said.

Levin, who organized a walkout in March at Allderdice High School following a mass shooting in February at a high school in Parkland, Fla., said it was ridiculous that something like this could happen less than a year after that shooting and wants to see gun laws reformed.

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