Consolation, hope and a tinge of bittersweet humor characterized remarks made at a community-wide interfaith vigil at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial on Sunday evening, October 29.
Roughly 36 hours after the previous day’s attack at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, more than 2,300 people sat inside the Oakland auditorium while hundreds more congregated outdoors in the rain.
Hailing from Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods and from cities across the country, gatherers listened to community workers, rabbis, spiritual leaders, politicians and musicians reflect on the tragic murder of 11 Jewish worshippers and the anti-Semitism that apparently motivated the murderer.
“We thank you for being here, for being where we should not have to be,” said Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “After a raging anti-Semite shot up a holy place of worship on our Shabbat and murdered our extended Pittsburgh Jewish family we needed to be here because at times like these, we need community, we need the comfort of each other, we need love not hate and we need that giant hug that this Pittsburgh Jewish community always gives.”
Finkelstein’s comments were followed by the national anthem and “Hatikvah.”
“I have been a wreck for days,” said Leon Zionts, who sang the Israeli national anthem. “What was going through my mind was that I wanted to make everyone proud and I wanted them to hear the hope that we have at times like these, even though they are terrible and tragic.”
As the evening continued, speakers, both Jewish and not, from the Steel City and well beyond, implored attendees to oppose bigotry and hate, to support one another and to remember those lost in Saturday’s attack.
“The Tree of Life is a special place, but that attack on the Tree of Life was not just an attack on them; it was an attack on this entire city and this entire region,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “We all come together as one. As Pittsburghers we will support the Tree of Life, we will support the families, we will continue to move forward and grow stronger. This bigotry will not defeat us. Love will conquer all.”
Mayor Bill Peduto struck a similar chord.
“Let me tell you something about Pittsburgh, we are tough,” he said to thunderous applause. “We are proud of our blue collar roots and we are not the type of people that react to threats or actions that ever takes back from us. We will drive anti-Semitism and the hate of any people back to the basement on their computer and away from the open discussions and dialogues from around the cities, and around the states and around this country.”
Naftali Bennett, the Israeli minister of education and Diaspora affairs, represented the Jewish state.
“I met the people, the leaders of the Jewish community and the leaders of the greater community here in Pittsburgh,” he said. With Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, “I visited the synagogue and I did not see death, I saw life. I saw strength. I did not see darkness. I saw light — much light.
“I saw a warm diverse community of love and unity. I saw etz chaim, the tree of life which will never be uprooted by hate.”
While subsequent speakers invoked similar tropes, an amusing gest appeared at evening’s end when rabbis from the three congregations housed within the Tree of Life building were asked to speak.
After Rabbi Jonathan Perlman recalled his Pittsburgh childhood and later longing to return home after having moved away, he said, “So I brought my family back eight years ago, when I was called to become the rabbi of New Light Congregation, a historic congregation in our city over 100 years old, and I got to meet the friendliest, what we say in Yiddish ‘the most heimish,’ people I have ever got to work with in my career as a rabbi.”
Moments later, Rabbi Cheryl Klein of Congregation Dor Hadash took the stage and retorted: “Dor Hadash is a small but mighty congregation that is composed of seekers, learners, lovers and doers. I thought we were the most heimish congregation. Let’s discuss.”
Prior to concluding the evening with recitation of the El Malei Rachamim prayer, Myers beseeched political leaders to better their tone.
“It starts with speech,” he said. “Words of hate are unwelcome in Pittsburgh. It starts with everyone in this room, and I want to address for a moment some of our political leaders who are here. Ladies and gentlemen, it has to start with you as our leaders.”
The service concluded with two pieces performed by members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Attendees said it was the perfect tribute for a broken city.
“It was magnificent, it was horrible, it was nora, it was great and horrible and necessary and cathartic, and our community is remarkable,” said Zionts. “Everybody came together to support us, and our city and our damage, and I think it went a long way toward that.”
“I am overwhelmed by the amount of community goodwill, but the more I think about it, the more I’m not surprised by the amount of community goodwill, because I have met people in this city and I know how much we love each other,” said Reverend Liddy Barlow, executive minister of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania.
Scott Brady, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, agreed.
“It was just wonderful,” he said. “It was just an outpouring of the support of a community coming together. It was really touching, really meaningful, poignant and personal and local.”
“We are pushing back against that hatred,” echoed U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-District 12), “and this is the beginning of a people coming together.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.