By Deborah Brown
At Monday night’s vigil on McKeldin Mall to honor the memories of the Jewish community members killed in Pittsburgh on Saturday, we sang many songs, mostly in Hebrew. The melodies were beautiful and sad, and singing them in the midst of a crowd of hundreds was inspirational. I was moved to be a part of the event.
The first prayer that we sang was E-l Malei Rachamim, translated as “God who is filled with mercy/ compassion”(the Hebrew word can be translated both ways). This prayer, which was led by junior computer science major Yair Fax, is typically recited at Jewish memorial ceremonies. The words ask God to give the souls of those who passed a peaceful rest in the World to Come because we are praying for them and because they gave their lives in sanctification of God’s name. Fax did something especially beautiful in his description of the people we were memorializing: he described them in Hebrew as “holy and pure neshamot (souls)”.
Rabbi Yonaton Hirschhorn, one of the OU-JLIC educators at Hillel, then led Psalm 83, A Psalm of Asaph. The words of this psalm include “O God, keep not your silence; hold not your peace, and be not still, O God / For your enemies are in an uproar; and they that hate you have lifted up their head /… They have said: ‘Come, let us cut them off from being a nation; that the name of Israel may be no more in remembrance.’” It lists some of the biblical enemies of the Israelites, and concludes with a plea to “Pursue them with your tempest, and affright them with your storm…. / That they may know that it is you alone whose name is the LORD, The Most High over all the earth.”
Two of the Jewish student leaders on campus, junior sociology major Emma Mester and senior government and Spanish major Naomi Grant, led the song “Oseh Shalom Bimromav,” meaning “the One who makes peace in his high places, He should make peace for all of us.” Rabbi Miriam Liebman, one of Hillel’s rabbis, gave a short introduction about what this song represents and related it to a beautiful piece of poetry. The words of this song are usually recited toward the end of daily Jewish prayer services, and it was very moving to hear them sung by hundreds of students. I felt like the entire University of Maryland community was singing, united, for peace.
After the official vigil ended and most students, staff and alum headed home, a group of around thirty students stayed behind on the mall. There was an Egalitarian Maariv prayer service, in which the Kaddish prayer was recited for all of the victims of Saturday’s attack. Then, the students gathered in a circle and spontaneously began to sing Hebrew songs.
The beauty of that moment was that it was entirely unscripted and uncoordinated, and the students who stayed behind represented all denominations and levels of religiosity within the community. We began to sing songs chosen for their lyrical meaning and emotion.
The first song was “Vehi She’amda,” which explains that although many enemies rise up against the Jewish people, God ultimately saves us. The literal translation of the words includes, “For our forefathers and for us, not only one [enemy] stood against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, Blessed be He, saved us from their hands.”
Some of the songs that we sang in a circle in front of McKeldin Library were reminiscent of the Holocaust, or of other tragic events that have happened to the Jewish people. One student shared his memory of singing “Vehi She’amda” in Israel, after an American student Ezra Schwartz was murdered in a terror attack there during his gap year.
Another song which was sung was “Ani Ma’amin,” a popular Hebrew lyric about believing that despite all the evil in the world that may cause him to tarry, the Messiah will come, and we will wait for him every day. These words can be sung in many tunes, but the one that we sang felt fitting: it was a melody composed by a rabbi in a cattle car on his way to Auschwitz, and carried through the war until a survivor was able to teach it to the world after liberation.
We also sung “Hinei Ma Tov U’Mah Naim, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad” meaning, “This is what is good and pleasant: brothers and sisters coming together.” It is a beautiful song simply appreciating unity.
The unity expressed through these musical prayers was felt throughout the vigil. The event truly represented people of all religious backgrounds and lifestyles supporting the Pittsburgh Jewish community and the Jewish community as a whole, standing up against hatred and for peace.