Parents clutched their children, couples leaned on each other and bystanders wept Saturday as about 100 people gathered in a steady drizzle outside the desecrated Tree of Life synagogue for what a former rabbi called a healing service, one week after the worst attack targeting Jews in U.S. history.
Rabbi Chuck Diamond led a service of prayers, songs and poetry and reminisced about some of the worshippers killed, as Show Up for Shabbat services honoring the 11 dead and six wounded were held at synagogues across the United States.
“I almost expected Cecil to greet me this morning,” Diamond said of Cecil Rosenthal, 59, killed along with his brother, David, 54, in the Oct. 27 shooting at Tree of Life in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
Diamond called the victims “angels given to us, full of love and life.”
In the past week, people told him of weddings, bar mitzvahs and other ceremonies they’ve held at the synagogue. “This is a place, a building that has stood for joy, but now it is forever stained,” Diamond said. But the shooting “cannot overshadow [that] this building is and will be into the future a place of joy.”
He said he took great comfort in seeing people of all faiths come together since the shooting and for his prayer vigil on Saturday.
“It’s important to come and take care of your community when something like this happens. I want to be in solidarity,” said Andrew Allison, who attended Saturday’s service.
Support from Sandy Hook
Before coming to the outdoor service, Steve Irwin, 59, and a friend stopped by a Squirrel Hill coffee shop. “When we went to pay, we were told all the coffee was paid for by the Sandy Hook community,” referring to Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
f”It brought tears to my eyes,” Irwin said, standing outside Tree of Life with his dog. “It shows how incumbent it is upon us to pay it forward to the next community [where] this happens, which we hope never happens, but we know it will happen.”
The outdoor service “gives you a sense of normalcy, which is impossible to find right now,” he said.
Meanwhile, the pews were packed at Central Synagogue in New York City, where Jews and non-Jews alike gathered for a special Show Up for Shabbat service.
“It’s such a tragedy that happened in Pittsburgh, and I was touched by the calling of the Jewish community to welcome non-Jews into their synagogues today, so I couldn’t resist and I came,” said Steven Kent, an Episcopalian. “It was a wonderful feeling.”
The suspect, Robert Bowers, 46, pleaded not guilty Thursday to federal charges that could result in a death sentence. He was arraigned on a 44-count indictment charging him with murder, hate crimes, obstructing the practice of religion and other crimes.
‘Face it with love’
“This is not a Jewish problem, although Jews were targeted. This is a human problem,” said the Rev. Lee Clark, a retired Presbyterian pastor who took part in Saturday’s service outside the Tree of Life synagogue. “The only way to confront hate is to face it with love.”
About a half-mile away at Congregation Beth Shalom, worshippers, including several members of Tree of Life, gathered for Shabbat services.
They honored Augie Siriano, 59, the 25-year Tree of Life custodian, who witnessed the shooting. “I had tea with Cecil [Rosenthal] 10 minutes before I found him,” Siriano said later, wiping away tears.
“Augie just loved them,” said Siriano’s girlfriend, Rose Battista.
Scott Priester, 48, a Lutheran, came to Beth Shalom on Saturday, his first ever Shabbat service. “The shooting rocked me to the core, more than anything in my personal life,” he said.
Gary Friedman, 65, called the massacre “a blow, a stab to the heart.”
He had no doubt the community will recover. “We’ll get over it,” he said. “We always do. What other choice do we have?”