Beth Shalom Overflows at Pittsburgh Vigil

Attendees of Monday night’s vigil in Howard County overflow into a classroom at Beth Shalom Congregation. (Eric McCormick Photography)

Hundreds were expected to attend an interfaith vigil at Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia on Monday night, but when more than 1,000 people showed up, an impromptu second vigil needed to be held in the parking lot.

“I’m glad someone mentioned it to me so I could come out,” Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Congregation said. “People made the trouble to come here, and I wanted to make sure they had a  meaningful experience as well.”

The Jewish Federation of Howard County announced plans for the vigil on Sunday afternoon following the shooting at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed and six were injured during Shabbat services on Saturday morning.

Well past the vigil’s 7 p.m. start time, there was still a line out of the synagogue’s front door, stretching through the parking lot to Harriet Tubman Lane. In addition to parking on Beth Shalom’s property, additional parking was needed in nearby lots at Atholton High School, Locust United Methodist Church and the former Harriet Tubman High School building across the street from the synagogue. By 7:30, Howard County  Police were instructing ushers to not allow any more people inside the synagogue.

“We understood that there would be upwards of 700 people here today. Easily, I would say, we have well over 1,000 people,” said Howard County Police Department Chief Gary L. Gardner, who was standing outside the synagogue.

The police’s primary purpose was to direct traffic,  although their presence was also “for the safety and  security of people here. We’ve enhanced our security at all of our religious institutions in the county, but right now especially in our Jewish  institutions,” he said.

The high volume of attendees was of no bother to Gardner, who said, “It is great to see the unity and the people coming  together here in Howard County. It illustrates the kind of people we have here in this community. We pull together in tough times.”

Although the event was organized by the Howard County Board of Rabbis, the Jewish Federation of Howard County and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Howard County, members and leaders of the Muslim and Christian communities came out in large numbers.

“This is overwhelmingly  positive. I’m emotionally so moved by the outpouring of support from every part of Howard County,” Grossman said.

For Rabbi Joanne Yocheved Heiligman, the news of Saturday’s shooting was “a gut punch. I am from Squirrel Hill. I have prayed at all three of those congregations, I have lead services at one of them. My family were members at one of them for a short time.”

Her memories of her Pittsburgh Jewish community  remain fond, even idyllic.

“It’s the kind of place where Jews across the spectrum were unified. I had Orthodox friends, Reform friends, everything in between,” she said in a conversation before the event. “It was such a safe place to be that the thought of that perfect at-homeness being disrupted is just unthinkable.”

Heiligman joined Grossman to address the crowd outside. Inside, Rabbi Sonya Starr from Columbia Jewish Congregation read the names and descriptions of each of the 11 victims of the  Pittsburgh shooting.

“We remember Cecil Rosenthal, who greeted  everyone who came to the synagogue with a ‘Good Shabbos’ and a ready prayer book,” she said.

Clergy of different faiths were asked to come to the bimah and light a candle in memory of each of the victims as Starr read their names and descriptions.

Ellicott City resident Felicia Hulit said she made it inside the synagogue briefly, but found herself with the crowd outside.

“I was torn about coming out, but there was just something that compelled me to come here. I love looking around. I see all different ages, colors, religions. It’s a beautiful thing,” she said. “I expected them to fill the  inside, but to have this enormous gathering outside is  really neat.”

Carla Gates, a Columbia resident and member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, felt she needed to be at the vigil, despite never making it inside the synagogue.

“I wanted to stand with my Jewish friends and family and let them know I see their pain. This is a chance for unity,” she said.

With the midterm elections around the corner, Gates could not help but wonder if the Pittsburgh shooting would make a difference at the polls.

“What will the outcome  ultimately be? I do think about the election,” she said. “I think there’s been a lot of hate speech from political leaders in high office, so I’m hoping that the country, not just Howard County, but we can all send a message that says, ‘this is just not who we are.’”

Robin Slaw, a Columbia resident who is also a member  of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, said, “My mother-in-law was a  Holocaust survivor. I’m just  horrified at the violence and the hate.” After witnessing the vigil, Slaw said she remains hopeful, but that there is still a lot of work to do in eradicating hatred.

“I’m hopeful, but we’re in a bubble here in Columbia. Maybe there is change coming. Maybe we’ve finally reached the point where we say enough is enough.”

The sense of unity was palpable. For Heiligman, as  heinous as anti-Semitism and acts of violence can be, they always serve as catalysts for connection.

“One of the ironic effects of anti-Semitism has been that it’s always brought Jews  together,” she said. “It’s a heck of a way to remind us to get along with each other. But let’s hang together.”

Related stories:
‘It’s a Horror’: Baltimore mourns, stands in solidarity with Pittsburgh
Anti-Semitic Attack at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Leaves Eleven Dead, Six Injured
Baruch Dayan Ha’emet
World Rallies Around Pittsburgh Offering Help and Support
Pittsburgh Rabbis Identify Next Steps for Victims’ Bodies
Rabbis Shaken By Attack Rally to Comfort Others
Special Editorial: #WeAreAllJews
Editor’s Notebook: Where Do We Go from Here?
Violent Times … And How to Talk to Your Kids About Them
Messages of Consolation and Hope Come from Politicians Here and Abroad

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