A huge crowd gathered outside Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford Sunday afternoon for a vigil in honor of the victims of Saturday’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
By Ronni Newton
Prayers, songs, and thoughts were shared, and many tears were shed as a crowd estimated at 1,000 gathered in front of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford on Sunday afternoon to remember the 11 people who lost their lives, and the six who were injured when a gunman opened fire during a service at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday morning.
The crowd packed the steps, the lawn, and the sidewalk, and spilled over onto Farmington Avenue, causing police to completely close the roadway to traffic for the 40 minute vigil.
“Here we are, standing together to honor the memory of those whose lives were lost yesterday, to pray for the speedy recovery of those battling their wounds, their only crime being Jewish, attending Shabat services, or bravely protecting those inside the Tree of Life Synagogue,” said Howard Sovronsky, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. “I want to thank each of you for joining us this afternoon to stand together and publicly denounce the growing force of hatred and intolerance that has infected our society.”
West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor recognized many of the dignitaries who were among those gathered, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Secretary of State Denise Merrill, State Sen. Beth Bye, State Rep. Derek Slap, Deputy Mayor Beth Kerrigan, Town Councilors Leon Davidoff, Ben Wenograd, Dallas Dodge, and Liam Sweeney, Town Manager Matt Hart, and West Hartford Police Chief Vernon Riddick. Many political candidates also attended.
“We are all connected to the Tree of Life Synagogue,” Cantor said. “We are here to stand with the Tree of Life Synagogue and the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, the whole Pittsburgh Jewish community and Jewish people throughout the United States,” she said, pausing for the applause that punctuated her statements.
“This was the single most lethal and violent attack on the Jewish community in the history of our country,” said Cantor, and an attack on one place of worship is an attack on all.
“Seeds of division and hate lead to acts of division and hate,” said Cantor. “This country cannot accept senseless acts of violence and the perpetration of horror and fear for where you worship, who you love, the color of your skin, your ethnicity, or articles you write, or even just for going to school is absolutely unacceptable … We have to stand up against hate, practice kindness and love.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal noted that faith leaders of all different religions were among those in the crowd, all standing together in solidarity.
“This is what America looks like, people coming together to stand for the ideals of tolerance and decency, and civility that are part of the American ideal,” Blumenthal said. “There really are no words to express the shock and grief of this day, there are no words to recapture the 11 lives symbolized by these candles, there are no words to fully capture our outrage and sense of shame as Americans because this is not who we are.”
Blumenthal said that words are not enough to overcome the injustice and what is needed is action. “We must end the cesspool of demagoguing and dehumanizing of people who are different,” he said.
Looking out across the crowd that came out in solidarity for the vigil, Blumenthal said, “This picture is worth 1,000 words.”
David Warren, the national vice president of Regional Operations for the Anti-Defamation League, said that Saturday’s violent act comes in the context of rising anti-Semitism, which has increased more than 50 percent.
Warren said the community needs to stand up, to be leaders, to take action. “This afternoon we heal together but tomorrow must be a day of action.”
Joel Lohr, president of the non-denominational Hartford Seminary, evoked the words of Psalm 6: “How long, oh Lord, how long.”
Lohr said that many of the Seminary’s students were in the crowd, people of all faiths, of all backgrounds. “My prayer tonight is that you our Jewish communities know that we stand with you,” he said.
Saud Anwar, a physician who is also the mayor of South Windsor, said he attended the vigil “wearing the hat of an American Muslim to tell you we have unconditional love … when you bleed we bleed.” He said that an attack on one is an attack on all.
Anwar noted that one of the 11 victims of Saturday’s shooting was 97-year-old Rose Mellinger, a Holocaust survivor, who had lived through unspeakable tragedy. “As she was praying at this place … she saw the face of hate again, and this time around it took her.” Think about this, Anwar said, “A Holocaust survivor was murdered yesterday in the United States.”
All of the clergy in the crowd – and there were dozens – were asked to come to the podium, where they joined together to read a prayer for the the victims from the Tree of Life congregation written by Rabbi Naomi Levy. The names of all 11 victims were read aloud, and they prayed for the six who were wounded, including four police officers.
Clergy members then lit 11 memorial candles, one for each of the victims.
Rabbi Phillip Lazowski read the prayer for the memorial of the dead, first in Hebrew and then in English.
The crowd joined together, put their arms around each other, and sang aloud a prayer for peace in Hebrew.
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