In the aftermath of Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, students gather for vigil

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Speakers emphasized action during vigil at Sir Christopher Wren Building Courtyard. AVERILL MEININGER / THE FLAT HAT

Hundreds of lights pierced the night as students gathered in the courtyard of the Sir Christopher Wren Building the night of Monday, Oct. 29 to mourn Saturday’s mass shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a candlelight vigil.

It had been less than 72 hours since a gunman opened fire in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing 12 congregants in what is believed to be the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in American history. Among the victims were two middle-aged brothers, a 97-year-old woman and an elderly married couple.

Jewish, Christian and other campus leaders gathered at the vigil in a show of solidarity marked by public statements of grief and hope. From 6-6:30 p.m., students poured into the yard until almost 200 were present. People stood in small groups, reflecting on the shooting as they held small candles distributed by the event organizers.

The depth of the emotional impact the event had on the community echoed throughout the ceremony. Rabbi Gershon Litt, director of William and Mary Hillel, delivered a speech which focused on the history of discrimination against Jewish communities. Litt went on to say that the Jewish story is partially one of persecution, suffering and victimization, but that it is also one of resilience and overcoming difficult circumstances.

He described Saturday’s shooting as an act of “absolute evil,” but not one without recourse. He spoke at length of the tools students have available to fight against these acts in the future: namely kindness, love and altruism. He called the assembled students to combat ignorance with education and selfless service.

“Philosophy without action means nothing,” Litt said. “We can talk all we want about our principles. I wanted to give the message that there are things we can do.”

“Philosophy without action means nothing,” Litt said. “We can talk all we want about our principles. I wanted to give the message that there are things we can do.”

Hillel President Alexina Haefner ’20 spoke after Litt and expanded on the solution he proposed, while also elaborating on her own experience with Judaism and the Pittsburgh shooting. Haefner herself is a convert to Judaism. She found out about what had happened while she was at Culture Cafe, not even able to check the news because of the Sabbath requirement not to use electronics. As the president, she’s worked over the weekend to provide safe spaces for Jewish students to reflect and process the shocking news.

“The people killed were those people everyone knows, the elderly regulars,” Haefner said. “This is something everyone can relate to, so it’s hard to deal with.”

The need for education rang as the central priority throughout the night, in order for students and citizens to understand Jewish tradition so as to avoid the hatred that stems from ignorance.

“People will really think negatively about an entire group of people just because they don’t know about them,” Litt said. “We need to figure out how to reach people who are taught to hate us.”

Haefner called on people to educate themselves about the struggles faced by Jewish people and to challenge unjust systems. Haefner, like many at the event, expressed sadness, but also a willingness to make meaningful efforts for change.

College President Katherine Rowe was also present at the ceremony, and said she was deeply moved by the event.

“To see the space filled with candles was incredibly moving and was exactly what we needed,” Rowe said.

Correction 11/2/18: This article has been corrected to reflect that a quote from Rabbi Gershon Litt had been previously attributed to Hillel President Alexina Haefner ’19. It has also been corrected to reflect that Haefner was misquoted as saying she had been warned by her mother about the hate she would face after converting to Judaism.