Hundreds gather at university hall to remember victims of synagogue shooting

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By Philip Sean Curran
Staff Writer

McCosh Hall on the Princeton University campus is where students and the public have come to hear renowned thinkers, scholars and public figures, not usually to remember victims of a massacre.

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But on Nov. 5, a crowd estimated at more than 450 people came for a vigil for the 11 dead in the shooting on Oct. 27 at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa. The service featured prayer and song, including the reflections of a Princeton student who lives three blocks away from the synagogue that was attacked.

“This is an incredible showing of solidarity of peace and against anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred,” said Rochelle Calhoun, vice president of campus life at Princeton.

The name and age of each victim were on a sign that hung on the lectern where Rabbi Julie Roth, the executive director of the Center for Jewish Life at the university, and others spoke during the one-hour vigil, moved indoors because of inclement weather.

Photos of the victims flashed on a large screen, with 11 undergraduates, seated around 11 candles, reading the names of the victims aloud and sharing brief biographical details of each life lost.

In her remarks, Roth called it “one of the darkest times for the Jewish people in America.”

“This is a time when our country feels so very far away from its highest values and ideals,” she said. “We will not let the events in Pittsburgh weaken our resolve to discover a new path toward justice and equality for all Americans without exception.”

During the service a moment of silence was observed, as the lecture hall grew quiet.

“Our silence tonight is not the stillness of indecision,” said Rabbi Eitan Webb, director of the Chabad House at the university. “It is the silence of decisiveness and a prelude to action.”

Princeton freshman Isabel Segel, a native of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, where the synagogue is located, shared during the vigil how close-knit the community there is.

“In Squirrel Hill, if there is a fellow resident you don’t know, they probably know your best friend, next-door neighbor, your cousin, or probably all three,” she said.

Yet on that Saturday morning, she got a message on her phone telling her of the shooting and that there were hostages, said Segel, who was in Philadelphia that day. Her mind filled with questions about where her family was.

She spoke with her mother, to learn the family was somewhere else, but on lockdown, “huddling with each other as they heard countless sirens whizz by,” she said.

“My sisters were crying to me on the phone,” she said. “Squirrel Hill and the community that makes it so vibrant will never be the same.”

Segel said that during Princeton’s fall break, she and her sister cried in front of the synagogue, a house of worship that had become a crime scene.

“Throughout the week, everywhere I went, the flowers, the police tape, the protestors, the crying faces, the vigils and the reporters were devastating reminders that not even my picturesque neighborhood is immune from hate-filled massacres,” she said.

Federal authorities have charged Robert Bowers, 46, with the shooting. He has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges contained in a 44-count indictment, offenses that could get him the death penalty.

“The Jewish people have been persecuted for thousands of years and no cowardly anti-Semite with a military grade assault rifle and three handguns will ever scare us away from our faith,” Segel said.

Jill Dolan, dean of the College at Princeton and a native of Squirrel Hill, shared how her sister had a friend whose two brothers, Cecil and David Rosenthal, were among the victims.

“All tragedies arrive with different degrees of separation,” Dolan said. “In this one, these are the measure of mine.”

Later in her remarks, she touched on the recent shootings in schools and elsewhere.

“All of these tragedies occurred in public places where people joined in prayer or pleasure or learning or the simple rituals of daily lives,” she said. “It seems our desire to live public lives, in face-to-face community, puts us at risk. But this is also where we must find our unity and strength.”

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