Interfaith messages of love and support voiced at BU vigils to honor the 11 killed in Pittsburgh

Vigil organizers light 11 candles, one for each victim of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. Photo by Lexi Pline/BU News Service

By Rachel Rock
BU News Service

Boston — As the sun set and the temperature dropped, Boston University administrators, campus religious leaders, faculty, staff and students of many faiths gathered in front of Marsh Chapel to honor the 11 victims of the mass killing at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday.

Speakers at the vigil, organized by student leaders within BU Hillel, emphasized unity in asking the community to reach out to each other and to provide support for the Jewish collective grief felt locally and nationally. Speakers called this the most brutal anti-Semitic attack ever perpetrated on the American Jewish community.

Ariel Stein, a current BU student who has spent her life as a congregant at the Tree of Life Synagogue shared her story.

“I never thought that my community would be subject to the largest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history,” Stein said. “It is up to all of us to love each other and to stand up for the other in society.”  

Stein also spoke at the vigil held last Sunday on Boston Common in front of hundreds of people.

Oelmis “Emi” Fermin, a student leader in BU’s Muslim community, told attendees to support each other as neighbors regardless of the separation in their religions.

“Many times we are not allowed to grieve with [our Jewish friends] because of our different identities,” Fermin said. “As I look around the crowd, I see kippahs but I also see keffiyehs and I see veils.  Now is a time to come together to show support for our neighbors.”

Representing the university, Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore asked students to break out of the echo chambers that have undermined society’s capacity to see beyond our differences.  He urged students to be deliberate in learning and to stay encouraged.

“You should be talking with each other every day and we should use the professionals and the other folks who are here to make sure that you can engage about the timeless issues of being human,” Elmore said. “Engage about these issues now and to be able to do it at this university. Let’s be present with what’s happening in the world without giving into despair and hopelessness.”

Many in the crowd lingered after the vigil ended to share their thoughts and feelings. Hodan Hashi, a junior at BU had organized a vigil a year ago to honor the victims of a bombing in Somalia. She remembered the impact of public support for her grief.

Especially when we live in a time where it feels like nobody cares about anything, I wanted to come to show that people from different communities care whether they know you well enough to tell you,” Hashi said. “It was important for me last year.”

BU senior Jordan Exum talked of the Tree of Life massacre in the context of a steady increase in mass shootings since 2016. She pointed to the proximity of the midterm elections.

“I don’t know what more incentive there is to get out and vote for laws that could change this,” Exum said.

Adia Turner, a BU senior from Georgia, described how the Pittsburgh shooting had increased her already shrinking sense of safety.  Raised a Christian, Turner has spent many hours in her church and now worries one day she might get news that her sacred space has been violated by a gunman.  It renewed her sense of commitment to stand up against hatred.

“You show up for communities that have been disenfranchised because you know what that feels like and anti-Semitism and racism go hand-in-hand,” said Turner.

As the Hillel gathering ended, a student announced a second vigil and prayer service forming nearby.  Organized by the smaller orthodox Jewish community of students at BU, this event called “Stronger Than Hate” had been announced prior to the larger Hillel gathering.  

Kayla Freilich, a BU junior and one of the four event organizers, said her group wanted to create something that would be more personal than the Boston communal vigil on the Common the day before. They wanted to do something on campus that would center around the Jewish prayers of healing and mourning and less around speeches.

“We wanted our service to be based around emotion and something that was kind of particular to us,” Freilich said.

As word spread, Freilich said they received a lot of interest and reached out to a number of area synagogues to invite members and to make them aware of this student-led effort.

Though the scheduling of two consecutive vigils in front of Marsh Chapel caused confusion, Freilich acknowledged the combination offered a choice and variety of ways to mourn the tragic events at The Tree of Life congregation.

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