Tuesday, October 30, 2018
NORTHAMPTON — On Monday evening, well over a hundred people walked a mile with lit candles in hand from the Unitarian Society to Congregation B’nai Israel to attend a vigil in response to the killing of 11 people at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
“I think it’s a way for me to process,” Linda Eichengreen said as she walked. At the same time, walking felt like taking action for her, too. “Being silent isn’t going to work,” she said.
At the end of the walk, people packed into Congregation B’nai Israel. And when it seemed the room was full, still more people filed in. Those who attended processed their sadness and honored those who had died, but many highlighted their resolve to continue to stand strong as Jewish people or allies and fight back against anti-Semitism.
Rabbi Raquel Kosovske of Beit Ahavah in Florence and Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B’nai Israel led the program.
“As a Jewish person or leader, I’ve always been terrified something like this would happen in one of our spaces,” Kosovske said. With the increase in mass shootings, she said, her fear only increased.
Still, she said, “In the last day or two there’s been a response from the Jewish community to come out as Jews,” she said.
Kosovske and David read the names of those who were slain, with a moment of pause for each one.
“Each one, I feel like I knew them. I feel like it could be one of us,” Kosovske said.
Several political leaders attended and voiced their support of the Jewish community.
Congressman Jim McGovern spoke to the crowd: “My heart aches for those who lost their lives … my heart aches for the country — this is not our country.”
Gatherings in the wake of hate like these remind him that there is goodness in the world and country.
“I do know this: There is a way out if it. I believe love is stronger than hate and I believe we are stronger than hate,” McGovern said.
Mayor David Narkewicz also expressed support.
“We will resist hatred with you,” he said, “and we will do everything in our power to keep you safe.”
Prospective lawmakers Mindy Domb, Dan Carey, Jo Comerford and Lindsay Sabadosa were there as well, according to Narkewicz.
Members of the community stood and spoke as well.
Ariana Finkelstein is a Mount Holyoke first-year student from the Pittsburgh neighborhood where Tree of Life is. Being far away from home after the tragedy in her community was difficult, she said.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” she told the room, “There’s no words to describe the loss.”
Others in the crowd spoke of how they want to channel their anger into action and one encouraged everyone to vote — a suggestion that caused the crowds to erupt into applause.
Sara Weinberger commended the community for stepping up in the wake of the shooting.
“I am overwhelmed by the support by our community,” she said. If people had spoken up like this in the past, she said, it’s possible that the dozens people in her family who died in the Holocaust would have lived.
Though many spoke of fighting back, David said it’s still scary for some.
“I’ll acknowledge this — there are many people in my community that feel a heightened sense of vulnerability,” he told the Gazette.
“I still believe going to synagogue is an extremely safe thing to do,” he added. “While there’s a broader context for what happened on Saturday due to the discourse in our country right now, an event like this in an American synagogue is very rare.”
Nick Fleisher, a Northampton resident who is Jewish, agreed with David.
“I’m not scared but I’m worried about the direction our country is going in,” he said as he walked from the Unitarian Society to the vigil.
Fleisher said he was there to show solidarity with other groups, too. “This isn’t just an attack on Jews,” he said. “It’s become an attack on immigrants, Jews, refugees — anyone who is different.”
Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, an Episcopal priest, echoed Fleisher. “When any group is targeted, it’s a threat to everyone,” she said. Though she added: “There is a long and painful history of anti-Semitism in this country and the world.”
The alleged shooter, 46-year-old Robert Bowers, targeted the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society on social media for its work with refugees, and he posted a list of synagogues involved in National Refugee Shabbat events, NBC reported. Congregation B’nai Israel is one group that hosted a dinner earlier this month. In October, other synagogues and Jewish groups hosted events in support of refugees as well.
Rabbi David said that in the end, though, events like the shooting in Pittsburgh reinforce the reason his synagogue does social justice work, such as supporting refugees.
“We can’t hide,” he said. “We have to be out there with our commitments and who we are.”
Next Monday at Congregation B’nai Israel will hold an interfaith rally and call to action at 7 p.m., David said. Similar events around the Valley include a Shabbat dinner in honor of Tree of Life on Friday at 5:30 at Belly of the Beast and a community gathering hosted by Nishmat Shoom at Northampton Friends Meeting Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.
Greta Jochem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org