In addition to commemorating the 11 victims of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, a number of Richmond groups are uplifting members of the Jewish community in various ways following the event.
In “A Night of Unity,” synagogues from around Richmond came together at the Weinstein Jewish Community Center Oct. 30. In addition, a vigil was held on campus the night before, organized by Jewish Life at VCU Executive Director Rabbi Matisyahu Friedman.
“It was a call for hope and action,” Friedman said of the vigil. “In the face of darkness we can choose to dwell in the darkness, or we can choose to expel the darkness through action, through good deeds, through light.”
VCU senior Nina Dater is a member of the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. She knew most of the victims, and her family lives in Pittsburgh. Dater said her family frequents the synagogue, but did not attend the Saturday the shooting took place.
“I remember seeing all 11 of these people throughout my life,” Dater wrote in a Facebook status. “Cecil Rosenthal made me laugh at my bat mitzvah when I was nervous. That is a memory that will last forever. I still have no words about last Saturday, I’m still in awe with the amount of hate in this world. Stop spreading hate and start spreading love, at least do it for the people who suffered at the hands of hate.”
The message of the VCU vigil was to come together and spread light.
“Solidarity and support is everything in this world,” said VCU freshman Vidhi Phadumdea, an attendee of the VCU vigil. “I’m not Jewish, but it doesn’t matter who you are or who you worship, it matters that you’re there for people who need you at the time.”
Elan Radbil, who attended the VCU vigil, said after one candle was lit, the others were also lit from that candle, symbolizing unity. The vigil focused on coming together after tragedy, instead of turning to anger.
“That’s what they want,” Radbil said. “The hatred in the world just wants you to be sad and to be scared for your life … you’ve got to keep living your life, and live it more fully, for all the tragedies, not just this tragedy.”
The massacre was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the U.S. Supporters across the nation have gathered in solidarity of Jewish communities affected by the massacre. Other local organizations have released statements condemning the attack and offering support services.
“The mission of the Jewish people is to be a “Light unto the Nations,” Congregation Beth Ahabah posted in a Facebook statement Oct. 27, the day of the shooting. “That is, it is our obligation to act and react in way that shows the world the morality that we wish for all.”
According to the Anti-Defamation League — an international Jewish non-governmental organization that works to fight anti-Semitism — anti-Semitic incidents rose nearly 60 percent in frequency in 2017. David Weinfeld, assistant professor of Judaic Studies at VCU, blames the current political climate for this increase.
“Things have gotten worse since the candidacy and election of the president,” Weinfeld said. “There has been an increase of vandalism and anti-Semitic rhetoric online, and now we’re seeing the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in American history.”
President Donald Trump spoke of the shooting at a Missouri rally last week, accusing the Pittsburgh massacre suspect Robert Bowers — as well as the recent pipe bomb mailer suspect Cesar Sayoc — of distracting from the Republicans running in midterm elections.
“We did have two maniacs stop a momentum that was incredible, because for seven days nobody talked about the elections,” Trump said. “It stopped a tremendous momentum.”
This is not the first time the president has neglected to directly condemn a violent hate crime. On the heels of last year’s deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, President Trump described the white supremacists — who shouted “Jews will not replace us” while marching past Charlottesville’s only synagogue — and their counter-protesters as having “very fine people on both sides.”