As the sun set, community members held each other close and lit candles, sharing light during a vigil in the wake of the Tree of Life shooting in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania. Nirva LaFortune, assistant director for scholars programs and diversity initiatives, read one of her favorite quotes from Martin Luther King Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
The Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life invited members of the community “to stand together in grief, concern, solidarity and compassion; to offer support for every neighbor; to find comfort and resilience together,” the vigil’s program stated.
Community members gathered on the Main Green “because this is the place Brown comes to mark our shared and common humanity,” said Reverend Janet Cooper Nelson, chaplain of the University. The Squirrel Hill shooting, as well as the violence at a Kroger grocery store in Kentucky, the death of the Saudi Washington Post reporter killed in Turkey, the pipe bombs sent to public figures and the threat to transgender rights in the United States are some of the many issues that are “deeply, deeply in need of our attention,” Nelson said. “Our love will make a difference.”
President Christina Paxson P’19, like many who spoke at the vigil, has a personal connection to Tree of Life. She grew up in Pittsburgh and took guitar lessons at the Jewish Community Center in the neighborhood. It was in Squirrel Hill that she began “learning to love matzo ball soup.” After she converted to Judaism and started to plan her wedding, it was “very clear” to Paxson that Tree of Life was the place she should get married. “A little bit more than 36 years ago, I walked with my mother two blocks from her house in Squirrel Hill to Tree of Life and got married,” Paxson said. She is one of many whose memories of “significant events have been overladen with horror and sorrow.”
Maia Rosenfeld ’20, a Squirrel Hill synagogue community member and a Herald reporter, hopes that “together we will build a world without guns and without the hatred and bigotry that pulls their triggers.”
Rosenfeld was deeply connected to the members of her community who lost their lives. “I will miss Cecil’s warm smile, (and) Jerry greeting me at the door,” she said. When she was hospitalized a few years ago, Rosenfeld’s friends came to visit her thanks to congregation member Daniel Leger, a chaplain at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He is currently in critical condition —“I send (him) the same love and prayers.”
The Squirrel Hill community is dedicated to fighting for social justice and rights for immigrants and refugees, Rosenfeld said. “To be Jewish is to be inclusive, to be a voice for equity and peace.” This “commitment to loving our neighbors” was “why our congregation was targeted,” she added. “If any community can turn pain and prayers into action, this one can.”
The vigil was not solely focused on mourning the victims. Many speakers expressed their exhaustion from the hate and violence they see pervading the country today. “Even as a minister, it is often difficult for me to process the thought of senseless violence and tragic deaths — I just can’t digest it,” said Jermaine Pearson, associate chaplain. “It seems like there’s no rhyme or reason that we’ve experienced such a tragedy in this season. I’m holding back the tears, I’m fighting through the fears, it seems like things have worsened over the past few years.”
In her address, Paxson also noted an uptick in hate crimes from 2016 to 2017. “Every hate crime, no matter who is victimized and who is targeted, hurts every single one of us,” she said. But “we can’t let these things weaken us.” Associate Chaplain Rabbi Michelle Dardashti, Rosenfeld and LaFortune insisted that community members must take action now and vote.
Shanze Tahir ’19, president of the undergraduate council of students, Kelly Garrett, director of the LGBTQ center, Marquis Gatewood, associate dean of students and N’Kosi Oates GS also spoke at the vigil.
Dardashti closed the evening by encouraging community members to find someone they hadn’t met and move close to them on the Green as she sang Psalm 23. Then, the community members sang Psalm 133 as a group. They formed a circle, holding each other around the waist, swaying. Some cried, others hugged, everyone lingered.