Prayers for peace, kindness and love, for a better world for ourselves and our children, rang out at the Tucson Jewish Community Center Monday night, as more than 1,200 people of all faiths came together for a candlelight vigil in memory of the 11 Jews killed in an attack Saturday at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.
The lone gunman also wounded six others, including four law enforcement officers, in the rampage, which has been called the worst anti-Semitic attack in recent U.S. history.
“I wanted to be here as a visible symbol of my commitment to face hatred and supplant it with love,” said Stuart Salvatierra, associate pastor at St. Marks United Methodist Church, who wore his clerical collar to the vigil.
The Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona organized the gathering, along with local synagogues and Jewish agencies. For much of the program, local rabbis took turns reading out hopes and prayers that individual attendees wrote on cards provided before the ceremony.
Todd Rockoff, president and CEO of the Tucson J, opened the ceremony with a moment of silence, then slowly intoned the names, ages, and hometowns of the 11 men and women who were killed.
Bryan Davis, executive director of the Jewish History Museum/Holocaust History Center, sought in his remarks to ground the incident in history, noting that “anti-Semitism didn’t begin with Nazism and didn’t end with World War II.”
Attacks on the Jewish community are connected to attacks on other minority communities, Davis said, and with the shooting Saturday, Tree of Life joins others such as Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on “a tragic map of racial and religiously motivated mass murders.”
Looking out over the crowd, Davis said that “to see this level of community support and solidarity” was a “silver lining amid days of sadness.”
Beth Lavin, a former police officer who retired to Tucson from Seattle, told the AJP she attended the vigil “because I’m so hurt and I’m so upset, and I’m mad. I’ve got a range of emotions. I need to be around people that feel that same way so I can talk to them and pray with them and find some kind of peace within myself with this tragedy.”
Michael Jacobson, an optical engineer, has lived in Tucson since 1975 but was born and raised in Pittsburgh. “It was a wonderful place to grow up,” he said. He recalled being inside Tree of Life’s building years ago with his mother, and that a girlfriend had lived across the street from the synagogue. “I’m still in a bit of shock” about the shooting, he said.
The prayers read out to the hushed crowd sounded themes of solidarity, of healing for the wounded and comfort for the bereaved, of the need for unity and respect. “My prayer is that hope will never die,” said one. “Words matter,” reminded another.
Some spoke of fear. “As my grandson asked me, ‘What did we do wrong?’ I had no answer,” said one.
Songs led by three of the community’s cantorial soloists and remarks from leaders of other faith traditions punctuated the reading of the prayers.
Pastor Elwood McDowell of Trinity Missionary Baptist Church called on “God Our Father, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God of Abraham Heschel, God of Martin Luther King Jr., God of Mahatma Gandhi, God of Catherine of Sienna, God of Francis of Assisi” to grant those assembled a voice to speak words of love that might overcome hate.
Imam Watheq Al-Obaidi of the Muslim Community Center of Tucson stated, “hatred and violence on the basis of religion have no place in our world.”
Sat Bir Kaur Khalsa sang from Sikh scripture and prayed for the courage to wear her turban the next day.
Bishop Edward Weisenburger of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson quoted Pope Francis, who said, “We are all hurt by this inhumane act of violence.” Weisenburger asked God to keep synagogues across the nation safe “along with all schools, churches and public places.”
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild noted that hate speech and gun violence “exploit cherished freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom to bear arms. These freedoms are not and were never intended to be, absolute.”
To address hate speech and gun violence “will require leadership, real leadership at the federal and state level. It will also require recognition that Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and other religious minorities are not the enemy. That ethnic and racial minorities are not the enemy. That refugees and immigrants are not the enemy. That women are not the enemy. That the press is not the enemy,” Rothschild said to applause and whoops from the crowd.
Rothschild said the antidote to “the poisonous ideology of white supremacy” is “communal action – reaching out and getting to know those we see as different from us and working together toward common goals. The antidote is commitment to living the principles this country is founded on. The antidote is voting and being informed. The antidote is recognizing the humanity in each other.”
Stuart Mellan, president and CEO of the Federation, expressed his gratitude to all who attended or participated in the ceremony. “I needed to be with you tonight,” he said.
Echoing the mayor’s call to action, Mellan concluded, “In recognition of the complexity of this moment I leave you with this admonition that is central to Jewish wisdom: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
To view the entire event, visit www.facebook.com/TucsonNewsNow/videos/284259652207794.