October 31, 2018

Hundreds Join Vigil, Prayer Service for Tree of Life Victims

By Donald Gilpin

More than 700 filled the Nassau Presbyterian Church sanctuary Sunday evening to pray, sing, and mourn the victims of last weekend’s massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh.

“The service reflected the desire of our community to be together, to be in solidarity with Jews across the world, to be mourning together the death of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh,” said the Rev. Dave Davis, senior pastor of Nassau Presbyterian and one of the organizers of the interfaith vigil, along with Rabbi Adam Feldman and the Princeton Clergy Association.

Organized in less than 24 hours, the community prayer service included remarks by Feldman, Davis, Imam Chebli of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey, prayers led by other area clergy, and comments by Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert and officers of the Princeton Police Department (PPD). The gathering also included a variety of music, the reading of Psalm 23 in Hebrew and in English, and the lighting of 11 candles for those who perished.

“It was important to go to a place where you feel supported, where you feel we’re in this together and we’re going to make it through,” said the Rev. Bob Moore, executive director of the Coalition for Peace Action. “It was heartening to see such a big turnout, people from across the faith spectrum. It was very uplifting and empowering.”

Davis added, “It was both remarkable and heartbreaking.”

Feldman, expressing his gratitude for the support of the Princeton community
and especially the members of the PPD, stated, “I know, we all know, it has been such a difficult two days. We are horrified, devastated, and deeply saddened by the news of this anti-Semitic act of hatred. We in the greater Princeton community know that an attack on any of us is an attack on all of us.”

After reading the names of the people who were killed, Feldman pointed out connections between the Squirrel Hill and Princeton communities. “It may not surprise you to know that people in our congregation in Princeton have relatives and friends in the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh, including some of those who lost their lives, some who were injured,” he said. “This hits us very close to home.”

He continued, “What is our response to this tragedy? Sorrow for the loss of life, sadness for the attack on a house of worship — a synagogue, hope that these attacks will somehow not continue in any form in this country, gratitude for those who stepped in to save people and for those who support us today, pride in who we are and in our shared common religious values that bring us together, and prayer.”

Also affirming unity with mourners in Pittsburgh and wondering “what can we do to make it stop?” Lempert asserted, “We stand in grief and solidarity with them and their friends, and community. We stand with them in deep gratitude to the heroic first responders who risked their lives to save dozens of others. And we stand together with them against hate and violence. We stand with them in the belief that love must win out over hate.”

Emphasizing “the core values that make communities like Princeton and Squirrel Hill what they are,” Lempert called for change. “This does not need to be normal. We must speak out against intolerance. I pledge my support to work with all of you to rationalize our gun laws, to confront and eliminate intolerance here in our community and beyond, and to do everything we can to avoid finding ourselves back here again.”

In a press statement issued on Monday, Moore condemned “this virulent act of anti-Semitism and hate in the strongest possible terms” and also denounced the “inflammatory rhetoric” emanating from the White House. The statement urged all citizens to join the CFPA and their Ceasefire NJ project in calling for a national assault weapons ban. “They are weapons designed for the battlefield and are the weapon of choice for many mass shooters,” Moore wrote. “When they were nationally banned from 1994 to 2004, the number of deaths with them went down by two-thirds.”