More than 550 people filled the Soloway Jewish Community Centre social hall to capacity for a memorial gathering, October 28, in solidarity with Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, after a mass murder shooting spree at the Tree of Life Synagogue there.
The shootings at the synagogue, located in Pittsburgh’s historic Squirrel Hill neighbourhood, happened during Shabbat morning services on October 27, the day before. Eleven worshippers were killed and six others – including four police officers responding to the incident – were injured.
At the memorial gathering, quickly arranged by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, 11 empty chairs and memorial candles were set on the stage in honour of those who lost their lives.
“We are here today to mourn together, lament together and commiserate together,” said Rabbi Reuven Bulka, Federation’s Annual Campaign co-chair, who acted as MC for the event.
Rabbi Bulka thanked the police officers and security guards present at the event saying, “We are here in the presence of people who have put their lives on the line for our community.”
Ottawa Police Services Chief Charles Bordeleau was the first of several speakers to make brief remarks. He said police have heightened vigilance at Jewish community institutions in the city while assuring the gathering that there has been no indication of heightened threat levels.
Deputy Mayor Mark Taylor, speaking on behalf of Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, who was out of town, said the attack on those who had come together in prayer and in peace on Shabbat was “not only criminal, but betrayed all of humanity.”
“Hatred is hatred – whether it’s anti-Semitic or based on ethnicity, gender, race, language or any other motive – and our fight is against the forces of hatred, intolerance and ignorance,” Taylor said. “We only begin that fight when people of good faiths, of all faiths, and of no faiths, stand vigilant together, as we are tonight.”
Taylor also said the “only source of solace in this tragedy” is that it gives people additional courage and fortitude to come together and denounce every form of hatred and intolerance.
Ontario Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod, the MPP for Nepean, said there “weren’t a lot of words” she could give to make things right, “other than you have my continued support for your community, and you can count on me to call out hate when I see it and to stand with you against anti-Semitism.
“Tonight, we are here together, showing we are in defiance of those who don’t want us to assemble, to those who would try to threaten us, and to those who do not believe in freedom of worship,” MacLeod said.
Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, the MP for Ottawa Centre, said there is still “far too much anti-Semitism and hate,” not just in the United States but in Canada as well. “When we look at Statistics Canada, we see that Jews remain the community most targeted in the country.”
McKenna said that on behalf of her family and the prime minister, “we mourn with you, we pray with you, we express solidarity with you and we promise as a government we will do everything we can to keep you safe.”
Federation Chair Hartley Stern said that while he had spent the majority of his adult life as a physician trying to heal and comfort patients, “no individual can provide the comfort and healing that is required in the context of such a horrific, intentional massacre.”
“It is the collective of all that are here which has the power to do this,” Stern said. “On behalf of the Jewish community of Ottawa, I wish to thank our municipal leaders, our provincial leaders, our federal leaders and all the religious leaders of every faith that are here tonight, as well as everyone who came here tonight to help us mourn, grieve and relieve our collective suffering.
The most poignant remarks of the evening were from Torontonian Dena Libman, whose cousin, Joyce Fienberg, was one of the 11 murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue.
Libman remembered Fienberg, who grew up in Toronto before marrying and moving to the U.S. fondly, and said that while it has become “all too familiar” to hear news of random acts of mass violence, the Pittsburgh massacre felt so personal to so many because it happened in a synagogue, “a familiar place to most of us.”
“We are all members of the same family, only some of us are closer than others,” Libman said.
In a show of unity, Rabbis Menachem Blum, Elizabeth Bolton, Howard Finkelstein, Steven Garten, Eytan Kenter and Idan Scher – representing Chabad, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform congregations in Ottawa – recited Psalms 121 and 128, and the prayer for the recovery of the injured, together.
The rabbis also read the names of the 11 victims: Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger.
Cantor Jason Green joined the rabbis on the stage to recite the memorial prayer and to lead the assembly in singing “Ani Ma’amin,” “Hatikvah” and “Am Yisrael Chai.”
Rabbi Bulka concluded the gathering by suggesting everyone think of 11 acts of kindness they could perform in memory of the 11 lives lost.
“Whether it means becoming a blood donor, donating to a food bank or volunteering at a shelter, there are so many things you can do to say to the world, ‘These people are not with us anymore, but they live in our spirit.’”