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‘We will rebuild’: Pittsburgh’s community holds vigil to mourn — and unify

Religious leaders and public officials vow to stamp out anti-Semitism amid calls for healing

Hundreds gathered at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh Oct. 28 for a vigil for the victims of the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue. (Video: Drea Cornejo, Zoeann Murphy, Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)
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PITTSBURGH — The shooting began just a few minutes after Rabbi Jeffrey Myers had started the 9:45 a.m. service.

There were 11 congregants with him in the sanctuary. He rushed to help pull a few people in the front rows out of the room.

“But alas, I had eight people in the back,” he said. He could not save them all. Seven of his congregants died Saturday morning, in the deadliest attack on Jews in the nation’s history.

“Seven of my congregants were shot dead in my sanctuary,” Myers told the hundreds of mourners who gathered at a Sunday vigil in Pittsburgh. “My holy place has been defiled.”

In a vigil that lasted about two hours, Pittsburgh’s political and religious leaders came together to reinforce the bonds that tie the community. They gathered with residents at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum the day after a gunman entered Tree of Life synagogue and opened fire on worshipers observing the Sabbath, killing 11 and wounding six others.

The lives lost in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

Like the frigid rain that began shortly before the memorial, mourners first arrived as a steady stream, but then came in a torrent, filling every seat in the orchestra and the balcony, occupying every inch of standing room and flooding the foyer. Many had to listen to the ceremony from outside.

Looking out on the crowd from the stage, Rabbi Ron Simons noted that “the love is so overwhelming, it’s actually flowing out.”

Members of the Tree of Life congregations were seated at the front, in a section cordoned off by rope. They were, as United Jewish Federation president Jeffrey Finkelstein said in his opening remarks, “where we should not have to be.”

“We need that giant hug that the Pittsburgh community always gives,” he said. He thanked law enforcement and Pennsylvania’s elected officials, including Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, Gov. Tom Wolf, and Sens. Robert P. Casey Jr. and Patrick J. Toomey for their support.

Through the anger and grief, the primary message Myers and others delivered was one of healing and resolve.

“We will rebuild,” Myers vowed. He spoke of receiving messages from across the world, from practitioners of all faiths.

“My cup overflows with love. That’s how you defeat hate,” he said.

Rabbi Cheryl Klein of Dor Hadash, another congregation that worshiped at Tree of Life, lamented the loss of her fallen congregant Jerry Rabinowitz.

“We will grieve at Dor Hadash for a long time. We will pray for those clinging to life,” she said, her voice breaking. “And with your support, love and friendship, we will continue to do the work of our people.”

Peduto, who has been highly visible during the crisis, took a firm tone on hate speech.

“Anti-Semitism isn’t even remotely a thought within this city’s borders,” he said. “We will drive anti-Semitism and the hate of any people back to the basement, on their computer, and away form the open discussions and dialogues around the city, around the state and around this country,” he declared to a standing ovation.

The accused gunman, Robert Bowers, had written numerous online screeds that railed against Jews before putting his words into actions on Saturday.

“I just want to kill Jews,” he told officers after his capture, according to a federal criminal complaint.

As worship began, a gunman brought evil to a Pittsburgh sanctuary

Volunteers from the Red Cross handed out tissue packets, and crisis volunteers from Allegheny County stood by to support those who became overwhelmed by grief.

Bryce Tallon, a preschool teacher at one of the city’s religious schools, had struggled with the news and found solace in the night’s vigil.

“It’s amazing to see how full it is, how many people are outside. I find a lot of comfort in the community,” she said. “It’s always been a difficult time to be a Jewish person. But it’s been uplifting.”

For other Pittsburgh residents, just attending was not enough. This was the case with Gabriel Goldman, 34, who attended Virginia Tech at the time of its infamous 2007 shooting. The massacre at Tree of Life, “took me right back to 11 years ago,” he said. “Back then, I didn’t really know what to do.”

But this time, he did. On Sunday morning, he drove to Target and grabbed as much candy and coffee as he could to bring to the vigil. He set up a table manned by a fellow Virginia Tech alumni and offered solace in the form of Kit Kats and hugs, which many attendees readily accepted.

“It’s too close to home, too many times,” he said.