SHU and Westmoreland community honor Tree of Life synagogue shooting victims

Members of the Seton Hill community gathered in St. Joseph Chapel on Oct. 30 to remember the lives lost in the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Squirrel Hill that occurred on Oct. 27. Photo by H.Carnahan/Setonian.

Mass shootings are not uncommon in the United States. As of Nov. 28, there have been 323 mass shooting incidents in 2018, according to the Gun Violence Archive. But when one of these shootings occurs 45 minutes from home, the local community feels the impact.

On Oct. 27, 46-year-old Robert Bowers opened fire during the morning service at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pa. Eleven people were killed and six were injured.

“It was horrendous,” said Sister Maureen O’Brien, director of campus ministry at Seton Hill University. “It was just one of those moments where everything stops and you just focus on the horror.”

Among the 11 victims were Daniel Stein, 71; Joyce Feinberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Rose Mallinger, 97; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal 54; husband and wife Bernice Simon, 84 and Sylvan Simon, 86; Melvin Wax, 88; and Irving Younger, 69.

Members of the community hold their candles during the vigil at the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg on Oct. 29 for the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

For O’Brien, the shooting was particularly impactful. She grew up close to Squirrel Hill, in Lawrenceville, and said she often drove past the Tree of Life synagogue.

“It was almost incomprehensible not just that this was happening, but it was happening at a place that was familiar to me,” O’Brien said. “After trying to absorb the horror, my next thought was what do we do? How do we respond?”

SHU responded quickly, with a memorial service on Oct. 30, three days after the shooting. The university cancelled classes during the time of the service to give all students and faculty the opportunity to attend.

“It blew my mind,” O’Brien said. “There wasn’t an empty seat, people were standing… I think it was really Seton Hill at its best: coming together as a community to reach out in compassion to victims of horror and violence.”

David Stanger, associate professor of art at SHU, read the names of the 11 people who died in the shooting. The service included reciting multiple prayers, including the Kaddish, a prayer for the dead, and the Mi Shebeirach, a prayer for the injured. Members of the choral ensembles at SHU performed songs throughout the service, including Barechu, the Hebrew call to prayer.

“We wanted to make sure that the service was in the spirit of Judaism and in the tradition of Judaism,” O’Brien said. “That’s why we prayed the Kaddish and we had readings from Jewish authors, so that we would honor that spiritual tradition of the victims.”

O’Brien said she helped plan the service with Gemma Del Duca, Wilda Kaylor and Rabbi Sara Perman. Del Duca founded the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education (NCCHE) at SHU, and Kaylor is the associate director for the center. Perman is a retired rabbi and co-founder of the Westmoreland County Diversity Coalition.

“I think especially because of the presence of the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education, we have a particular relationship with the Jewish community,” O’Brien said. “As Christians, we do have that relationship with Judaism. Even in our mission statement, we’re a Catholic university rooted in Judeo-Christian values.”

The NCCHE was established at SHU in 1987, and its mission is to “counter anti-Semitism and to foster Catholic-Jewish relations by making the fruits of the Holocaust scholarship accessible to educators at every level.” One of the events the NCCHE hosts each year is the Kristallnacht remembrance interfaith service to remember the “night of broken glass” in 1938 where Nazis burned down synagogues, vandalized Jewish businesses and homes and murdered over 90 Jews.

Seton Hill University President Mary Finger speaks at the memorial service in St. Joseph Chapel on Oct. 30 for the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill that occurred on Oct. 27. Photo by H.Carnahan/Setonian.

“During the Holocaust, people lost their lives simply because they were Jewish, and I’m looking at this situation now where once again, the Jewish people were targeted,” O’Brien said. “I think anti-Semitism exists in our society, and until something like this happens, we don’t necessarily deal with it. Tragedies like this raise our awareness of some of the issues in our society that we really need to be attentive to.”

Another event held in remembrance of the Tree of Life shooting victims at SHU was Unity Through Tragedy, an open mic event where students could express themselves artistically. Eye Contact Magazine, the Griffins for Human Rights Club, Students in the Arts and the Music Therapy Club collaborated to host the event, and many students performed songs or recited poetry.

On Oct. 29, two days after the shooting, many members of the SHU community attended the candlelight vigil at the Westmoreland County Courthouse in remembrance of the victims. The Westmoreland County Diversity Coalition and Voice of Westmoreland collaborated to host the vigil.

Among the speakers at the vigil were Barbara Einloth and Mary Norbert Long of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill. The Blackburn Center was present to provide counseling, and multiple groups played music during the vigil. VOW estimates that more than 600 people attended the vigil.
“We thought it was beautiful,” said Erin Pohland, a member of the VOW’s leadership team. “There were a lot of people there standing in solidarity, and that was powerful to me. I think it’s important showing the Jewish community that we stand with them.”

VOW collected donations throughout the vigil for the Congregation Emanu-El Israel Synagogue Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund, which “provides assistance to individuals and/or organizations in need.” The Congregation Emanu-El Israel synagogue is located in Downtown Greensburg.

Students from SHU also brought a gold branch to the vigil, where attendees could write messages of hope. The tree is now located on the third floor of the Administration building, where anyone is welcome to add a leaf with their own message, or to add or take a rock.

More than a month after the shooting, the future of the Tree of Life synagogue is still undetermined. Bowers, who was taken into custody after being shot, was charged with 29 federal counts, including 11 hate-crime charges. He posted anti-Semitic content on a website called Gab, and posted the morning of the shooting that he “can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

“The random shootings are horrific enough, but the fact that it was targeted so specifically at people because of their religion, that it was a hate crime, made it even more horrific,” Pohland said. “Living with that sort of dread of being killed because of who you are…as a white person who is not Jewish and not a member of a minority group, I cannot imagine living with that level of terror or fear. I think it’s important for those of us who aren’t in those situations to speak out and stand up.”

From left: Seton Hill University professors Jen Jones, Debra Faszer-McMahon and Christine Cusick hold candles at the vigil at the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg on Oct. 29 for the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history. To be considered a mass shooting, the Gun Violence Archive states that four or more individuals must be shot or killed in the same general time and location. With hundreds of mass shootings occurring in the U.S. each year, the question of gun control is frequently debated.

“For me, I think the gun issue is a very significant issue in our society today,” O’Brien said. “I know that people can be critical of that position, but until you sit with a parent who has lost a child, or a child that’s lost a parent because of gun violence, I think you can’t understand why I am passionate about gun legislation and trying to do something in our society. I think it’s a systemic problem right now, and we have a lot of goodwill, but our goodwill has to be accompanied by efforts to change.”

“Common sense gun measures, eliminating some of these root causes are violence… those are some of the measures that we think need to be taken to change the culture of violence that has really become far too prevalent, not just in Western Pennsylvania, but across the country,” Pohland said.

Moving forward, Pohland said she hopes the community continues to come together to make Westmoreland County a more welcoming and inclusive place. O’Brien said starting to combat discrimination in communities is important to prevent violence from taking place.

“We really need to become proactive in trying to make our own community a more loving, peaceful, compassionate community,” O’Brien said. “I think when we do that, when these horrendous tragedies happen, then we’re immediately compelled to do something.”

Published By: Stephen Dumnich

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