“We Are Not Alone and We Are Not Afraid.” Philadelphia Mourns After Pittsburgh Attack

Rebecca Kirzner of HIAS speaks at the vigil at Rittenhouse Square. | Selah Maya Zighelboim

Ellie Levine collapsed on her kitchen floor when she learned the news.

A Temple University sophomore from Pittsburgh, she was making breakfast on Oct. 27 when her family told her what had happened: A shooter entered Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue and opened fire on worshippers there. Later that day, it was announced that 11 people — ranging in age from 54 to 97 — had been killed and six others injured.

“There’s nothing you can do in that situation but cry,” Levine said.

That evening, she headed to Rittenhouse Square, wanting to find solidarity among other Jews.

There, she joined hundreds, some not Jewish, who gathered around the gazebo in Rittenhouse Square to mourn, process and just be together following the shooting.

“In times like this, you just want to be around other Jews, be around people who understand and you don’t need to explain how you’re feeling so much,” Levine said.

The vigil began with a Havdalah ceremony. Afterward, people from different organizations spoke about unity and the Jewish community’s resiliency. The vigil ended with the Mourner’s Kaddish and Hebrew songs.

“It felt right that, in the face of domestic terrorism and anti-Semitic act, that the Jewish community comes together and sings in public in Hebrew as a testament of we are not alone and we are not afraid,” said Molly Wernick, who organized the event.

Wernick, assistant director of community engagement at Camp Galil, learned of the shooting around 11 a.m. that day. She was on her way to canvass when she received a text from a coworker asking if any of her campers were from Pittsburgh in light of the news.

Not knowing what the news was, she got on social media and saw the headlines.

Wernick wanted to do something for Pittsburgh that very evening, so she posted on Facebook asking if anything was happening. Within the span of about 10 minutes, she said, she posted again, asking if anyone wanted to work with her to organize an event for when Shabbat ended.

She received support immediately. Between their connections, she pulled together a vigil for hundreds of people in just a few hours.

“There was no doubt in my mind that we needed to create a space … after Shabbat ended for the Jewish community to come together and not be afraid and not be alone,” Wernick said.

Throughout the weekend, other Jewish organizations and synagogues held gatherings for the shooting, including Congregation Tifereth Israel, Har Zion Temple and Congregation Beth El in Voorhees, N.J., among many others. On Oct. 28 at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia held a packed interfaith vigil, where local politicians and religious leaders spoke.

“We are not new to this,” Anti-Defamation League Regional Director Nancy Baron-Baer said. “It was, however, the largest and most deadly attack on our American Jewish community in our history, and that is horrifying. Do I think that it can happen again? Yes. The hatred and the divisiveness in our society today makes actions like we saw on Saturday all the more probable.”

On Oct. 28 at about 9 p.m., Steven Rosenberg, chief marketing officer at the Jewish Federation, landed in Philadelphia after attending the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Israel. A native of Squirrel Hill with family still there, he had learned about the shooting from a group chat with friends from grade school.

He called his brother, who lives just down the street from Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha as soon as he learned the news. His brother hadn’t even heard there was a shooting at the synagogue. As they were on the phone together, they heard sirens. Rosenberg hung up so his brother could lock his doors and make sure he was safe.

“I wanted to be right on Forbes Avenue or Shady Avenue or any street in Pittsburgh where I knew everybody else was going to be,” Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg wasn’t able to attend the interfaith vigil at Rodeph Shalom, but did go to a security meeting on Oct. 29 at the Jewish Community Services Building. There, Jewish Federation Director of Security Frank Riehl, along with local and federal law enforcement officials, urged attendees to keep lines of communication open with the federal and local agencies sworn to protect them.

“Law enforcement was on the scene just in two minutes, which is incredible,” Riehl said at the meeting, reflecting on a conversation he had earlier with Brad Orsini, the director of Jewish community security at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “So you can see even with the heroic actions … bad things happen very quickly. The idea that it can’t happen here needs to go away quickly. … It can happen anywhere, any time. … We’re going to have to have some difficult conversations, and some of you will have to make some difficult decisions.”

Riehl then turned to Philadelphia.

“HIAS was referred specifically by this animal,” he said, referring to a social media message posted by suspected Pittsburgh shooter Robert Bowers. “HIAS is in our building. … It hits home.”

Rosenberg thinks he might return to Pittsburgh for a visit. He’s not sure it will accomplish much, but he just wants to be there.

“There’s sadly been way too many mass shootings. None has affected me more than this, mostly because of where it is,” Rosenberg said. “It’s very sad for me to know that Squirrel Hill will now be referenced with Columbine and Parkland and all the other places.” 

szighelboim@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729


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