Vigil Focuses on Unity as Huge Crowd Mourns Loss of Life in Pittsburgh

The congregation during a vigil at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons on Thursday, 11/1/18. Michael Heller photos

On Buell Lane in East Hampton, cars were parked all the way to the lights on both ends. A series of state troopers, in full police regalia and wide beige hats, greeted people at the white gates marking the entrance to the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, while a suited usher guarded the front door and checked bags, presumably for firearms. But in the face of fear, or terror, or both, and in the wake of last month’s Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, which marked the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history, people showed up.

So many people showed up, in fact, that the sanctuary ran out of seats. Community members hovered in alcoves, accepted folding chairs and retreated into the synagogue’s basement, where audio had been wired for the overflow of participants. For one night, the disparate religious communities of the East End came together, in the interest of peace.

The crowd overflowed outside the Jewish Center of the Hamptons on November 1.

The buttons said “V’ahavta L’reiacha: Love thy Neighbor.” Along with battery-operated vigil candles, they were offered to congregants and visitors alike as tokens of solidarity. “Jews will not replace us,” the Unite the Right rally had chanted in August of 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. On Thursday night, in the wake of another disturbing act of hatred and violence, East End community members pushed back.

“I’m supposed to be welcoming everyone here this evening,” Rabbi Joshua Franklin of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons began, “but welcoming is hard, because I’d rather not be welcoming people here tonight. Being here is a blessing. In being here, we get to witness the beauty of the community.”

There was, indeed, great beauty in sadness, in the songs sung both in English and Hebrew that rose up from the sanctuary, a salve for the hurt experienced by every mourner, every Jewish person, every minority, every Pittsburgh native and every American this past week.

Sag Harbor Temple Adas Israel Rabbi Dan Geffen speaks during the vigil.

A rotating list of speakers included East Hampton Village Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr., Rabbi Daniel Geffen from Sag Harbor’s Temple Adas Israel, Rabbi Michael Rascoe of Riverhead’s Temple Israel and East Hampton Village Police Chief Michael Tracey.

Members of the local clergy, including representatives from the First Presbyterian Church of Amagansett, the First Presbyterian Church of East Hampton, the Montauk Community Church, the Most Holy Trinity Community Church, St. Michael’s Lutheran Church, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork, Calvary Baptist Church and the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons lit candles in memory of the eleven Jewish worshippers who were gunned down during Shabbat services on Saturday, October 27.

Rabbi Geffen offered a slightly political message to Thursday’s mourners.

“They are not numbers, or means for political fodder,” he said of the victims. “They are human beings whose lives were extinguished solely for the fact that they were Jews. Fear will not help us to remember the victims, nor to console their family and friends. Fear did not keep us home tonight. We must address the ways in which we allow our society and our world to hate with such ferocity.”

That message — that the systematic acceptance of hatred has led to the atrocities of late — felt like the underlying theme for Thursday’s vigil. In an era of inflamed rhetoric, the community’s religious leaders called for kindness, for acceptance, for the ingredients necessary to restore the country.

If the terrorist attack in Pittsburgh grew from fomented hatred, the vigil could be an antidote, a widespread acknowledgment from community members that things have gone — and continue to go — too far in the service of political victory. The mission inherent, as recognized by community and religious leaders, is to undo what has already been done.

“They reminded us,” Rabbi Franklin said of the 2017 mob in Charlottesville, “of what it was like to be on the streets of Nazi Germany.” This alarming recollection — that the worst moments in world history may be doomed to repeat themselves should decent citizens stand silently and do nothing — was nothing short of a peaceful call to arms.

The Jewish Center of the Hamptons Cantor Debra Stein led those in attendance in song, including her selection “Hashkiveinu,” a Jewish hymn typically recited on Shabbat that was composed by Leonard Bernstein in 1945. “Harshkiveinu Adonai Eloheinu; Hashkiveinu L’shalom. Let there be love and understanding among us; let peace and friendship be our shelter from life’s storms.”

The vigil concluded with the mourner’s kaddish, typically recited at the end of every Jewish service. In Judaism, the entire congregation speaks the kaddish aloud, but only those mourning the death of a loved one are asked to stand. But on Thursday, the entire congregation rose, a reminder, in haunting times, of an adage often repeated by those sharing this faith: Never forget.