“I am a victim. I am a survivor. I am a mourner,” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said.
It was just over a day after a gunman walked into Myers’ Squirrel Hill synagogue and opened fire, killing 11 people in what authorities said was a hate crime.
Myers managed to pull individuals near the front of the room to safety but couldn’t reach those farther back. Seven of Myers’ congregants were shot dead in the Tree of Life synagogue on Wilkins Avenue, a place Myers called his sanctuary. Three congregations share the space.
Myers was escorted from the scene by armed officers.
“So God, why us?” Myers asked. He added of the gunman, identified by police as 46-year-old Robert Bowers of Baldwin, “Why couldn’t he have turned his car in a different direction?”
Closing a weekend Mayor Bill Peduto called “the darkest hour in our city’s history,” thousands of people attended a standing-room-only interfaith vigil inside the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland on Sunday evening. The crowd filled the 2,300-seat auditorium and spilled outside. Those who couldn’t make it in listened from the lobby or to a live broadcast outside in the rain. Inside, attendees packed rows of seats and stood in dense groupings along the walls to hear Myers, other local religious leaders, and local and international politicians.
The spiritual leaders of two other congregations with a presence and loss of life in the massacre at Tree of Life also spoke.
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of the New Light Congregation said, “On our holy [Sabbath], we lost three pillars of our community. Three men who would give you the shirt off their back and who always volunteered their time and who thought of our synagogue night and day. They were always the first ones there on Saturday morning. They would have wanted us to continue on.”
And so Perlman said they will: “These three men cannot be replaced, but we will not be broken. We will not be ruined by this event.”
Rabbi Cheryl Klein of the Dor Hadash congregation said she would have been inside the synagogue when the shooting occurred but instead was celebrating the sabbath with family elsewhere. She said while “numb,” she was similarly unbowed.
“We are shaken and sickened, and we are suffering, but this violence will not define our dreams and hopes for the future. We are survivors. The Jewish people are strong and full of courage,” she said.
“My holy place has been defiled,” Myers said, “but we will rebuild.”
The event was both mournful and defiant, the vocalization of a city collectively reasserting its opposition to hate after suddenly becoming an international symbol of it.
“Let me tell you something about Pittsburghers: We’re tough,” Peduto said. “[…] We will drive anti-Semitism and the hate of any people back to the basement on their computers and away from the open discussions and dialogues taking place around this city and state and country.”
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a longtime Squirrel Hill resident, added, “Tree of Life is a special place, but this wasn’t just an attack on them, it was an attack on our entire city and region. This bigotry will not defeat us. Love will conquer all.”
The audience included local, state and federal politicians, as well as visiting dignitaries. Speakers included a multi-dimensional group of faith leaders and clergy, Wasi Mohamed of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, Rev. Liddy Barlow of the Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, and Rev. John C. Welch, a chaplain with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, among them. Representatives of Israel were also in attendance.
Israeli minister of diaspora affairs, Naftali Bennett, spoke forcefully of anti-Semitism in the present tense, calling it “a clear and present danger.”
“Nearly 80 years since Kristallnacht,” he said, “when the Jews of Europe perished in the flames of their houses of worship, one thing is clear: anti-Semitism, Jew hating, is not a distant memory, it’s not a thing of the past nor a chapter in the history books. It is a very real threat. […] The hand that fires missiles is the same hand that shoots worshipers.”
In videotaped remarks, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said, “We cannot offer you consolation but we can take you into our hearts and tell you again and again that the people of Israel and the entire Jewish people [are with you], and we will tolerate this hate never and nowhere.”
The event remained largely apolitical aside from passing mentions of “common sense reforms” that could have prevented such an atrocity. Bob Casey, the Democratic Senator from Pennsylvania, and his Republican counterpart, Sen. Pat Toomey, entered the venue together and sat side-by-side. Politicians from both major parties, including Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican Congressman Keith Rothfus, sat together in a section of reserved seating near the stage.
But Rabbi Myers, in saying more has to be done to stem the tide of hate speech he believes responsible for ginning up this kind of violence, spoke directly to the politicians present, telling them, “Ladies and gentlemen, it has to start with you as our leaders. If it comes from you Americans will listen.”
The audience responded with a standing ovation and chants of “Vote. Vote. Vote.”
Myers concluded, “But independent of what happens tonight and independent of what our elected leaders decide to do, it’s up to us, we the people.”