Hundreds hold vigil in Philadelphia for synagogue shooting victims

Hundreds of Philadelphians stand in solidarity with the Pittsburgh Jewish community during a vigil at Rittenhouse Square, on Saturday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Hundreds of Philadelphians stand in solidarity with the Pittsburgh Jewish community during a vigil at Rittenhouse Square, on Saturday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

For John, it had been an agonizing day.

The Pittsburgh native, who chose to withhold his last name, grew up just a block from the synagogue where a gunman killed eleven on Saturday. He’d even worshipped there as a child.

At some point earlier in the day, he’d heard in passing of a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. But as an observant Jew, he’d spent the entire day in the literal and figurative dark. The Sabbath forbade him from turning on a light switch, much less his phone.

Finally, when the sun dipped below the horizon, he reconnected to the world and called his parents. They were OK.

A couple hours later, though, he was still trying to process everything in the company of a couple hundred fellow mourners gathered in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square.

“This is our pain,” said John, who has lived in Philadelphia now for almost a decade. “This is my pain.”

Ten hours later and 300 miles away from the carnage, the crowd gathered Saturday night to mourn those murdered and maimed Saturday morning.

Despite the damp weather, hundreds filled the plaza to pray, sway, and sing together.

Most said they wanted just to be seen — to defy, with their presence, the terror that shook Pittsburgh and the entire Jewish community.

“When they come for me they better drag me screaming and kicking,” said Charlie Masucci, who is Jewish and from Philadelphia. “We’re not gonna go away.”

Saturday morning, a man charged into the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh during a baby naming ceremony and killed eleven, according to WESA. The man wounded six others, among them four police officers.

Police named Robert Bowers as the suspected perpetrator, and said they’re investigating the massacre as a hate crime.

Saturday’s vigil came together quickly on Facebook, and a mood of somber solidarity pervaded.

“Anywhere there’s a public showing to show that people aren’t apathetic is critically important,” said Marlene Mermelstein of Philadelphia, whose parents survived the Holocaust.

“I don’t think hate’s ever been gone,” she added. “But I think there’s an air of permission that has developed.”

With the exception of a few signs, Saturday’s gathering wasn’t overtly political. There were, however, plenty of not-so-subtle references to President Donald Trump, who many seemed to blame for widening cultural divides.

“He’s gotta go,” said Masucci. “They gotta get him out of here before he destroys this country. He has separated everyone.”

Trump called Saturday’s attack “devastating” and said, “It’s a terrible, terrible thing what’s going on with hate in our country.” He went on to say “this evil Anti-Semitic attack is an assault on humanity. It will take all of us working together to extract the poison of Anti-Semitism from our world. We must unite to conquer hate.”

On Saturday night in Philadelphia, unity prevailed.

Mourners sang together, hands clasped around each other’s shoulders. Some held candles aloft, including Mermelstein.

She’d brought a long, purple candle with her, but no matches. A neighbor saw, and gestured to his candle, already lit.

Mermelstein touched her wick to his — a small exchange of light in the darkness.

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