‘I refuse to walk in this world afraid’: U of T community remembers Pittsburgh synagogue shooting victims

Photo of vigil attendees holding candles
Members of the U of T community gathered for a vigil outside of University College Tuesday evening (all photos by Romi Levine)

 At a vigil held at the University of Toronto on Tuesday, honouring the victims of the attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the message was clear: show defiance in the face of hatred.  

“I refuse to walk in this world afraid. I refuse to walk through this world responding to the violence done to my people with a closed tent or a closed fist. Because that is how they win,” Rabbi Julia Appel, senior Jewish educator and campus rabbi for Hillel at U of T, said during an impassioned address to the crowd gathered around University College’s front steps.

This past Saturday, a gunman opened fire in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, killing 11 people who were gathered for Shabbat services – including U of T alumna Joyce Fienberg.

“They were the early risers, the helpers, the greeters, the service leaders, the regulars, the ones who make synagogues around the world work,” said Appel of the victims.

The news sent shockwaves throughout U.S. and Canadian Jewish communities, which were devastated by the latest horrific act of anti-Semitism. In the wake of the tragedy, those communities – including U of T’s Hillel chapter – received support and messages of solidarity from other religious and non-denominational groups. Many of those groups were present at Tuesday’s vigil, organized by Hillel in partnership with U of T and the Multi-Faith Centre.

“The outpouring of support from so many partners and friends on campus since Saturday makes me feel less alone and less scared,” said Aaron Rotenberg, interim director of Hillel at U of T. “Seeing all of you here gathering, mourning, reflecting with us makes me feel less alone and less scared. Thank you. Thank you for being here.”

coexist sign
A woman holds a message of solidarity at Tuesday's vigil.

U of T President Meric Gertler was also in attendance, along with Provost Cheryl Regehr and Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell.

President Gertler offered his condolences earlier this week in a message to the U of T community.

“In the wake of this senseless and appalling massacre, we are reminded, again, of the grim toll that antisemitism and racism exact on society,” he said in a statement.

U of T President Meric Gertler and Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the lieutenant-governor of Ontario, attended the vigil.

Appel, the rabbi, urged those attending the vigil to open themselves up to others who need help inside and outside the Jewish community, rather than retreat inwards.

“We know the ways in which trauma can harden the heart. Let us take our hurt, our fear, our anger and our devastation and turn around to take action toward a better world… Because our people were refugees on these shores, let no one else be turned back to certain death,” she said.

Aaron Rotenberg
Rotenberg recited a poem entitled Poem Without an End by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.

This latest incident of anti-Semitism doesn’t exist in a vacuum, said Rotenberg.

“I believe the different kinds of hatred all of our communities face are nested inside each other – hate for Jews, for Muslims, for people of colour, trans folk, queer folk, women, those differently abled, those who are neuro-diverse, immigrants, refugees like those at the congregation Tree of Life stood up for,” he said. “We cannot just knock out one hate and leave the other. Our safety is bound up in yours. Our love for one another needs to be strong enough to strengthen all of us.”

Rabbi Julia Appel
"It could have been my children. It could have been my grandmother. I've been to that synagogue to pray. It could have been me," said Rabbi Julia Appel of Saturday's attack.

"I have a lot of friends in the Jewish community so I wanted to show my support for them and everything that happened," said history and classics student Rhea Kunar.

A candle was lit for each person killed in the synagogue shooting.

Vigil attendees held each other close.


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