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Hundreds mourn Pittsburgh synagogue shooting victims at Rockville Centre vigil

Rabbi Howard Diamond: 'I have no words of comfort, ladies and gentlemen'

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“The people who speak are supposed to be here to try to comfort us,” said Rabbi Howard Diamond, who addressed members of his congregation and others during a vigil at Congregation B’nai Sholom-Beth David on Oct. 30. “. . . It’s very hard to be comforted. It’s very hard for me to be comforting.”

The vigil came three days after a gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, killing 11 people and injuring six. Hundreds packed the Rockville Centre temple to remember the victims and stand as one.

“The killing of Jews is anti-Semitism in its most extreme and terrible form,” said Rabbi Elliot Skiddell, of Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth. “Though Jews were the targets this time, there are many targets by the forces of hatred.”

Just three days before the shooting, Skiddell noted, a white man shot two African-Americans at a grocery store about 10 minutes after surveillance footage showed him trying to enter a predominantly black church. He added that the xenophobia in the United States and the hysteria over immigrants seeking to enter the country has created a troubling climate. “My ancestors left Egypt in just such a caravan seeking a better life in their promised land,” he said.

Rabbi Marc Gruber, also of Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth, spoke about his wife, Renee’s, family, who live in Pittsburgh and were personally affected by the tragedy. His mother-in-law’s cousin, Sylvan Simon, and his wife, Bernice, were killed at the Tree of Life synagogue. Gruber noted that an aide of his wife’s parents heard the gunshots and that Renee’s brother knew eight of the 11 people killed. 

The Anti-Defamation League has reported that anti-Semitic incidents in the United States rose by 57 percent in 2017 from 1,267 in 2016 to 1,986. It was the largest increase since the ADL began tracking in 1979. “This is a virus infecting society worldwide and endangering Jews,” Gruber said. “We people in all our very tight-knit communities are the antidotes.”

Gruber noted it starts with condemning those who demonize and dehumanize individuals in any way. “Let us listen to learn so that we may reason together,” he said. “We can focus on the values we share. We can restore a measure of caring, decency and respect to the public square. Right now, turn to your neighbor and make the commitment. Say, ‘I’m in.’” The members of the crowd did so.

Other speakers at the vigil included the Rev. William Koenig, rector of St. Agnes Cathedral; Mayor Francis X. Murray; Dr. Barry Dov Schwartz, rabbi emeritus of Congregation B’nai Sholom-Beth David; Imam Kashif Aziz, of Masjid Hamza in Valley Stream; Rabbi Anchelle Perl, of Chabad of Mineola; the Rev. James Smith, of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Baldwin; and Stephanie Merkrebs, of the Anti-Defamation League.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky and Assemblyman Brian Curran also addressed the crowd, and U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice advocated for stricter gun laws, “because a hate-filled deranged anti-Semite should never be able to get his hands on an AR-15 assault rifle,” she said.

The names of the shooting victims were read aloud during the vigil as student leaders of B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and members of Boy Scout Troop 214 lit candles in their memory.

Diamond said after hearing of the tragic attack in Pittsburgh, he called his children, and his daughter, who was frank about the long history of anti-Semitism and its continued prevalence, broke his heart. “She said, ‘Dad, you can be sad. You should be. You can be shaken, you can be heartbroken, but you can’t be surprised,’” Diamond recalled. “I have no words of comfort, ladies and gentlemen.”

Before closing out the service, Cantor Daniel Mendelson said in response, “Let’s keep praying.” In unison, everyone did.