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University affiliates gathered at Harvard Hillel Sunday evening to support each other and to honor the victims of the deadly mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue over the weekend.
Close to 100 individuals — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — packed into the vigil to pay their respects to the 11 victims of Saturday’s tragedy. Students gathered in front of the room and called out the names of the dead, lighting a candle for each one as the crowd stood silently and watched.
Rabbi Dani Passow spoke first, holding back tears as he shared a story from the book of Genesis. He described how God instructed Abraham to kill his son Isaac before an angel stopped the doting father at the last second. Passow said the parable played itself out in synagogues across the world Saturday morning.
“In every synagogue that re-lived this story, the angel cried out and Isaac was saved. In every synagogue but one,” Passow said. “Since then, millions and millions of Isaacs have been slaughtered. May these be the last of Isaac’s ashes that lay on the altar.”
The shooting took place Saturday at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn., claiming the lives of 11 worshipers and wounding six others. Witnesses said the shooter yelled anti-Semitic statements before he opened fire, according to the Washington Post.
Prosecutors charged the shooter with 29 counts of federal civil rights crimes Saturday night. The shooting is the deadliest-ever attack perpetrated against Jews on American soil.
At the vigil Sunday, University president Lawrence S. Bacow — wearing a white kippah — took a few moments to speak on the tragedy and how the nation can move forward.
“We can do more than simply comfort each other,” Bacow said. “We can vote for those who would bring us together as opposed to those who would divide us.”
Bacow also said the tragedy affects everyone, regardless of religion or identity.
“This was not simply a crime against Jews,” Bacow said. “It was a crime against all who stand for social justice. It was a crime against all people of faith.”
Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana also stood to address the vigial attendees. He spoke about voting and politics, saying at one point that he does not “want to live in a society that loves its guns more than its babies.” He ended his speech with a call to action.
“Today we grieve, tomorrow we start working for change,” Khurana said. “We must do both.”
Amitai B. Abouzaglo ’20, who attended the vigil, said he hopes the Pittsburgh shooting is not the sole reason people go to the polls on Nov. 6.
“Everyone was saying four months ago ‘You better vote. You want to do something? You better vote. You better do something.’ Don’t make us the altar,” he said.
While the shooting occurred hundreds of miles away, some students said the events Saturday “hit home” for Harvard affiliates who practice the Jewish faith.
Attendee Ilan M. Goldberg ’20, who serves as vice president of community relations for Hillel, said he's been pondering the historical weight and resonance of the tragedy. In an interview after the vigil, Goldberg said that — as someone whose family came to the United States from Mexico for “safety and in part for better opportunities" — the events Saturday were hghly unsettling.
“I think we’d seen acts of anti-Semitism, swastikas, and maybe anti-Semitic talks and posts, and that kind of thing, but this really was the first and hopefully the last act of mass violence against the Jewish community in the United States,” Goldberg said.
Vice President of Tikkun Olam at Hillel Paulette K. Schuster ’20 said the tragedy in Pittsburgh felt personal due to her family history.
“My grandfather was a Holocaust survivor and the rest of my family came to here — to Canada — for exactly the religious safety that Ilan mentioned,” Schuster said. “I think as generations go, it’s easier to feel more and more secure, and this was a very, very startling reminder for the community that that’s not always the case.”
Several Faculty Deans across the College sent emails to their students in the wake of the shooting to publicize the Sunday vigil and to encourage those who felt affected by events to reach out to House administrators and tutors for support.
“We stand strong in our denunciation of the cowardly act of violence that resulted in the loss of so many innocent lives,” Winthrop Faculty Deans Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. and Stephanie Robinson wrote in an email to House residents. “We stand in solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters.”
Reflecting on the heightened emotion and strong bonds between those gathered in the room, Goldberg said he was grateful for those who attended the vigil Sunday evening.
“I want to just say thank you to all of the communities that came out to support us today,” he said. “We can do a lot to support each other within the community, but an event like this really causes people to turn inwards and it’s been incredible to feel the pull of the outside in a positive way, the other people lifting us up.”
Correction: Oct. 29, 2018
A previous version of this article misquoted Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana. He told attendees at the vigil that "Today is a time to grieve," not "breathe."
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