Over 250 Rice students gathered at Willy’s Statue on Monday evening for a vigil honoring the 11 people who were killed in a shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Students and faculty congregated in the darkening Academic Quad starting around 7 p.m. Organizers of the vigil from Rice Chabad and Houston Hillel passed out candles to the attendees as they trickled in. Students stood quietly in place, talking softly amongst each other and relighting one another’s candles when the wind blew them out.
Rabbi Kenny Weiss from Houston Hillel, a Jewish organization involved on Rice’s campus, gave a memorial prayer for the victims of the shooting. Daniel Cohen, the president of Rice Hillel, spoke next, condemning the anti-Semitic motives of the attack.
“An attack like the one that took place at the Etz Chaim Synagogue in Pittsburgh took more than just 11 Jewish lives,” Cohen, a Will Rice College junior, said. “It is no accident that it took place in a synagogue, our communal gathering place, during Shabbat, our day of rest. This attack is intended to scare and disorient Jews by bringing violence into the place where we should feel most safe.”
Cohen spoke about the significance of the name of the synagogue that was attacked — “Etz Chaim,” or Tree of Life.
“This attack seeks to weaken our commitment to our teachings and to our values,” Cohen said. “It tries to force us to let go of our Etz Chaim, our Tree of Life. But each time we read from the Torah, and each time we say these words, Etz Chaim, we reaffirm our commitment to the teachings that have sustained the Jewish people for generations. We will hold fast to our Torah, and to one another. Even in this moment of extreme violence and hurt, we will continue to work towards peace for the sake of our Etz Chaim.”
Rose Kantorczyk, a Jewish student leader, called for empathy between communities and urged students to take action by voting and proactively learning about communities.
“As Jews in the United States today, we’re lucky to usually feel very safe,” Kantorczyk, a Lovett College sophomore, said. “I think that’s why many of us feel so shaken by this act of violence. It is my hope that this event strengthens and unites our community and also makes us more empathetic toward other communities who face violence less publicly and more often.”
Beginning his concluding speech with a reading of the Hebrew and English translations of a prayer from Psalms, Rabbi Shmuli Slonim of Rice Chabad urged attendees to channel their grief into action.
“We are hurt, shocked and sickened, and we would be forgiven if we sat and cried and asked an existential ‘Why?’” Shmuli said. “But the Jewish question in the face of that which we cannot understand is ‘What?’ What can we do? Let us resolve to take action. Darkness, our masters taught, is not beaten away with a stick. Rather, a little light dispels much darkness. The Jewish way is to turn tears into action, more loving kindness, more justice, more spirituality, more connection with the transcendent.”
Rabbi Shmuli led the attendees in a moment of silence. Afterward, the congregation sang Oseh Shalom, a Jewish prayer for peace. Many attendees knew it well, while others hummed along or remained quiet.
Following the vigil, attendees took turns kneeling by a long piece of paper to write messages to the members of the Tree of Life Synagogue, which will be mailed to the synagogue in the next week, according to Rabbi Shmuli.
Lindsay Josephs, a member of Rice Chabad and Houston Hillel, said writing the messages to the synagogue was the most powerful moment of the vigil.
“I really think that this incredibly strong act of unity will bring a sense of comfort and strength to the synagogue and lets its members know that the Rice community is here to support them today and all days,” Josephs, a Duncan College sophomore, said.
Slowly, people began to blow out their candles and disperse; some stayed for longer, talking amongst each other and embracing.
Nofar Salman, an Israeli fellow who works with Houston Hillel and contributed to the organization of the vigil, said the shooting on Saturday affected her deeply.
“As an Israeli, I’m supposed to be super prepared to situations like [the shooting], unfortunately, because we have so many terror attacks, and so many wars in my country,” Salman said. “It’s almost like it’s supposed to be normal for me to be targeted for being Jewish. But it was a completely different experience, what happened in the past three days here.”
Salman said she was blown away by the turnout to the vigil, which she said numbered anywhere from 250 to 300 attendees. The event organizers had bought 100 more candles than the number of attendees they had anticipated, and they ended up not having enough, according to Salman.
“I really, really was in shock in a good way to see the Rice community standing with our Jewish sisters and brothers,” Salman said. “I see what’s going on in the United States right now, and it’s not that easy to expect other communities to support you in times of need. It says a lot about the way that students feel connected to one another in this university, which is amazing. I think it’s even like a sign to how Americans should be connected to one another.”
According to Cohen, both President David Leebron and Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman attended the vigil. In a campus-wide email on Monday afternoon, Leebron addressed the tragedy in Pittsburgh and urged the Rice community to take a stand against intolerance.
Cohen said he began planning the vigil on Sunday, along with the rabbis from Hillel and Chabad and the help of the Boniuk Council and other members of Hillel and Chabad.
In her speech, Kantorczyk told the listening students that they had the ability to effect positive and powerful change with the resources available to them at Rice.
“There is a teaching in Judaism: Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena,” Kantorczyk said. “It means that we are not obligated to single-handedly finish the work of repairing the world. We are also not free to do nothing. May the memories of the deceased be a blessing.”