Following the recent mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, hundreds of Rhode Islanders gathered in an interfaith vigil outside the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island headquarters Monday evening.
Impassioned Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders led prayers and disavowed hateful rhetoric but also implored politicians and their community members to take action to implement gun control reforms.
“I am haunted by this question — what else can the faith community do?” said Rev. Donnie Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. “In the spirit of our prophetic tradition … I ask our political leaders to be leaders of courage … (and) to pass meaningful gun legislation that might mitigate the American tragedy of gun violence.”
The crowd stretched across Elmgrove Avenue, cupping flames of candles in their palms and murmuring assent to the messages of love and communion that flowed from the speakers.
“Look at everyone here, all around you, bearing light,” said Rabbi Sarah Mack of Temple Beth-El synagogue. “This is how we combat hate. By standing together, from across our communities, with unity. Together, we move forward to spread love and pursue peace.”
Projecting the ethos of solidarity, Mufti Ikram Ul-Haq represented the Masjid Al-Islam mosque in Smithfield, Rhode Island. “I would like to say to my Jewish brothers and sisters, when someone expresses animus toward you, it is directed toward all of us,” Ul-Haq said. “When someone attacks you, it is an attack on all of us. We will always stand by you, in good times and bad.”
Jakob Wells ’19 and several other students who were part of congregations that met at the Tree of Life synagogue lit candles for the 11 members killed in the shooting. The lights represented individual victims like Bernice and Sylvan Simon, who were married 60 years ago at the synagogue.
“Events like this one tonight have given me the conviction that we as communities can overcome and rise against the hate and bigotry with compassion and move forward and survive and heal together” Wells said as a member of the Dor Hadash congregation.
Representatives for organizations including the Anti-Defamation League, Dorcas International and the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence were on hand to offer resources inviting vigil participants to become involved and offer support.
“We really wanted to make sure that we were able to offer opportunities to the community … to prepare to take action,” Jewish Alliance CEO Adam Greenman said. “Coming together to pray was important, but coming together to act was equally important.”
Some disagreed that the vigil should be accompanied by political calls to action.
“Is this a political rally?” screamed Alan Gordon, jumping onto stage during Rev. Anderson’s speech. “I’m a Jew and I am offended by this politicization of our time of mourning.”
But many politicians present — including Gov. Gina Raimondo and State Senator Joshua Miller (D-28) — emphasized the fact that future tragedies like the Tree of Life shooting could be prevented through gun control reform.
“You can’t take the politics of gun control out of an incident where an automatic weapon was used as part of the incident,” Miller told The Herald. “They’re inevitably tied — you cannot untie that. So, if there’s something more to be done to make communities that don’t feel safe feel safer, that’s part of what we do on behalf of the victims of violence.”
“We should all be able to agree there are too many guns in society,” Raimondo told The Herald, “and you shouldn’t have to be afraid of going to school or church or synagogue, and we need some better common sense gun safety.”
Linda Finn, President of the R.I. Coalition Against Gun Violence, stressed that her organization and policymakers like Sen. Miller have pushed for gun control laws for the past five years. But laws such as bans on the AR-15 assault rifle and high-capacity magazines, along with a “Safe Schools Act” preventing concealed carry permits in schools, have all fallen through in the State House.
“It is a politicized issue in that it’s politicians that make laws that can affect outcomes,” Finn said.
As the candles dimmed, those gathered at the vigil expressed the spirit of resilience and change through one last song.
“We may never see this moment or place and time again,” the crowd sang at the vigil’s conclusion. “It will take a change of heart for this to mend. If not now, tell me when.”