Stony Brook University’s Hillel organization held a candlelight vigil on Monday, Oct. 29, in remembrance of the 11 people who lost their lives to an anti-Semitic attack in Pittsburgh.
The attack hit the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, a residential neighborhood in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Oct. 27. It was the deadliest anti-Semitic in the history of the United States, claiming 11 lives and injuring at least six others, including four police officers.
Stony Brook Hillel, which works to be a home away from home for Jewish students at Stony Brook, held this event so that students could process their feelings in the wake of this tragedy.
“I needed it, I felt surrounded by my community and that’s exactly what I was looking for right now,” Rachel Chabin, a religious program chair of the Jewish Student Association and a student representative of the Hillel Board of Directors, said. “I just don’t think Judaism is meant to be done alone.”
About 200 people attended the vigil, ranging from students, faculty, community members and members of the interfaith community at the university.
At the beginning of the vigil, Rabbi Joseph Topek, who has been a Rabbi at the university for 37 years, spoke to the attendants, urging them to remain strong and remember their common humanity in this time of tragedy.
“It is up to each and every one of us to build a society where no one lives in fear because of who they are,” Topek said.
As 11 candles were lit, the student lighting each one announced the name of the victim they were lighting it for. Not a single person whispered a word as several speakers, including representatives from the Muslim Students Association, Roman Catholic Ministry and the University’s Office of the President, asked people to embrace unity and hope and shun hatred during this crisis.
A psalm was read and several hymns were sung including Hine Ma Tov, a Jewish hymn that promotes unity. Students also sang “One Day,” a popular song by Jewish-American singer Matisyahu who said it’s “about struggle, I guess, about trials… it’s trying to like overcome those things.” At the end of the vigil, everyone came together to sing the national anthem of Israel, “Hatikvah.”
Some students at Stony Brook felt the impact of this anti-Semitic attack on a deeper and more personal level, particularly the President of Seawolves for Israel and active Hillel member, Neil Dasgupta, who grew up in Squirrel Hill, just down the road from the Tree of Life Synagogue.
“This hits very close to home. I grew up there and went to elementary school there,” Dasgupta said. “Squirrel Hill is the nicest of all my memories, it’s my childhood home.”
Dasgupta said that he was shocked to see the news and the very first thing he did was reach out to his friends and family to make sure that they were okay. He recounted his memories of Squirrel Hill in a short speech that he delivered to the attendants of the vigil, mentioning how he frequently drove by the synagogue on his way to school.
Topek said he felt the vigil gave the community “an opportunity to grieve.” He also believes that people must move forward from this event unafraid.
“Don’t live in fear, don’t let it frighten you. That’s what they want, that’s what lets the hate and the haters win,” Topek said. “Don’t let the hate win.”