By Adam W Glass
The air was cold and the mood was a mix of somber, subdued and reverent as hundreds of students, many holding candles, waited on the grass near McKeldin Library Monday night for a vigil, held in memory of the victims of Saturday’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, to begin. The vigil was held, “to honor the memories of those killed, pray for those hurt by this hateful attack, and stand heart-to-heart with our community,” the sponsor of the event, Maryland Hillel, said in a written statement.
Minutes before the vigil began, students had formed a long line, five people wide, that ran from the southwest corner of McKeldin Mall up to the speaker’s area on the library steps. There, event organizers handed out candles in paper holders, and urged students to move to the grass so that the vigil could begin. The students proceeded slowly down the steps to the lawn, speaking softly to each other.
The vigil was one of several held Monday night at synagogues and colleges in the Greater Washington area. At the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, Mayor Muriel Bowser, Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland and Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia were scheduled to attend.
Shortly after 8 p.m., speakers with special ties to the Tree of Life synagogue or to the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, along with representatives of the Jewish community at this university, spoke in succession from the dimly-lit landing of the steps to the library. The obscurity that shrouded the speakers did not seem to bother the crowd, however. Many seemed to look inward, or across their candles at others in their small groups of friends, rather than focusing on the podium.
About 20 minutes into the vigil, MJ Kurs-Lasky, the Hillel representative who was responsible for organizing the vigil, read the names of the 11 people who died. The reading of the names was followed by a long moment of silence.
Jessica Marris of Pittsburgh, whose mother was the religious school director at the synagogue, spoke of her bafflement that the largest anti-Semitic attack in American history had taken place at a site that was so small. It was the place where she had taught Israeli dancing, and to which an uncle referred affectionately as “the Tree.” Her family was there for a bat mitzvah only weeks ago, she said. “It is so small – why come after us?” she had asked her brother. “It’s big enough,” he answered.
Another speaker noted that “the candle of god is the soul of a person.” 11 candles had been snuffed out, he said.
Another speaker compared the tangled structure of the Havdalah candle to the intertwining of the community of several faiths that had come out to commemorate the victims of the attack.
Miriam Schwartz, an educator at Maryland Hillel, said that the attacks posed a challenge to Jewish Terps: to be fearless in the expression of their Jewish identities, but also to be unified, and see beyond what divides us. She thanked the students of other faiths who had come to the vigil to show their support.
Ari Koretzky, the director of MEOR, a Jewish organization on campus, spoke of “the sadness and the resolve echoing through the country.” He urged Jewish students to “be vigilant in our embrace of one another,” and described making a commitment to leading a Jewish life as a proper response to the shooting.
Jake Hirshman, a Pittsburgher who grew up in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood where the synagogue is located, found irony that life was lost in the place that should be the safest. He called Squirrel Hill a neighborhood of love where yards sported signs saying “no matter who you are, we’re glad that you’re our neighbor,” in English, Arabic and Spanish. He thanked the crowd on behalf of Squirrel Hill.
Emma Mester and Naomi Grant led the gathering in a song that was a prayer for peace.
After the vigil ended, Jessica Morris, a senior English major, called it “really beautifully done.” The shootings in Pittsburgh had left her feeling very far away from home, but at the vigil, she said she felt really supported. As she spoke, one friend after another came up to give her a hug.
Danielle Galitzer, a junior special education major, said the vigil was “really, really nice.” “It really touched me in my heart,” she said. “I had a hard time getting through this but [the vigil] really helped.”
Yoni Brande, a recent Maryland college graduate who is currently a research graduate in the astronomy department, called the vigil “very appropriate.” It was very encouraging to see such a wide cross-section of the campus turning out to attend the vigil in support of this university’s Jewish community, he said. As with Morris, one friend after another came up to Brande as he was speaking, and hugged him.
Tarif Shraim, this university’s Muslim chaplain, said that as a chaplain and a human being, he was horrified by the shootings. He was at the vigil to express solidarity with the Jewish community, to let them know that “their grief is our grief, their anger is our anger, and we’re here to mourn in heart and soul with them,” he said. It is a time “to heal, to bring unity, and to say in an unequivocal voice that what has happened is a great evil that has to stop.”
After Kurs-Lasky dismissed the vigil, a group of 25 held a Jewish evening prayer service on the mall, facing away from McKeldin Library. On the landing from which the speakers had addressed the crowd, a group of eight men stood and swayed in unison with shoulders linked, singing prayers in Hebrew. Two female bystanders joined in the songs. A man who had spoken earlier, Rabbi Eli Backman, explained what they were doing with a story. “If I’m talking and you talk, that’s an interruption. But if I’m singing and you sing, it’s harmony.”