A crowd of over one hundred McGill community members gathered at the Y-intersection on Oct. 30 to hold a vigil in memoriam of the victims of a recent shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The shooting, in which 11 members of the Tree of Life Synagogue were killed, took place on Oct. 27. The shooter, Robert Bowers, has been indicted on 44 federal charges, 32 of which are punishable by death. After a swath of his anti-semitic posts on the social-media website Gab were publicized, it became clear that he’d targeted the synagogue purposely.
The vigil was hosted by a coalition of 19 Jewish community and religious groups including Am McGill, JQueer, Ghetto Shul, and the McGill Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. During the gathering, the group recited traditional Jewish prayers and sang commemorative songs. Executives of Jewish student groups spoke to the crowd, condemning the shooting, remembering the victims, and exploring how the McGill community could best respond. Finally, 11 candles were ceremoniously lit in remembrance of the victims. Dean of Students Chris Buddle, Vice-Principal Communications and External Relations Louis Arseneault, and Principal Suzanne Fortier were present at the event. Buddle and Arsenault lit the first candle.
Noah Lew, president of the Hillel Montreal Leadership Council, and co-organizer of the vigil, condemned the violent, anti-semitic events in Pittsburgh and violence against religion in general.
In an interview with The McGill Tribune, Lew stated that the vigil was an important exhibition of resilience.
“Things like anti-semitism and other hatreds often start with words and progress into actions,” Lew said. “We felt this was a poignant reminder to stand up against hatred worldwide.”
Lew also remarked that it was especially encouraging to have members of the administration come in support of the event.
“I think having [Fortier, Arseneault, and Buddle] there with us and participating in the ceremony was a good reminder to our community and McGill students that they are standing with us,” Lew said.
The speakers emphasized the importance of unity in religious and student communities throughout the vigil. Ariana Kaye, president of JQueer and executive member of Hillel McGill, evoked the broader consequences of the shooting.
“One of the people who was murdered was an AIDS doctor,” Kaye said. “He was really receptive and warm to patients, so I think it was also a loss in that way for the LGBTQ community.”
Kaye also commented on the importance of including intersectional identities in the Jewish community and how the vigil was an excellent example of that.
“We all suffer together, we’re all here together, we’re all mourning together,” Kaye said. “It makes me feel so great that the McGill community can all be here together no matter your race, sex, gender, class, anything.”
Rabbi Shmuly Weiss, co-director of the Chabad Student Centre of downtown Montreal, closed out the vigil by reciting “El Malei Rachamim”—a prayer for the victims. Weiss emphasized how crucial it is to avoid divisiveness in light of this event.
“Human beings are allowed to have differences,” Weiss said. “[But at synagogue], you leave it at the door, you try to connect and focus on the similarities we share.”
Weiss further stressed the importance of a collective response.
“For someone to come in and try and take that [connection through unity] away, it’s the same thing with the shooting at the mosque last year, it’s the same idea,” Weiss said. “[Perpetrators of violence] are trying to terrorize every type of thing that offers sanctuary. We have to respond by saying that we will not stop showing up, that we will not be deterred.”
The Tree of Life Synagogue is accepting donations to aid the families of victims on their website.