Lexington gathers in Hillel House to mourn victims of Tree of Life shooting

Students come together to remember victims of the shooting in Pittsburgh


Lexington community gathers in Hillel on Oct. 29. Photo by Lyndon Sayers.

Marilyn Sample

About 200 people gathered in Hillel House on Monday, Oct. 29 to mourn the shooting of 11 people at Tree of Life Synagogue on the previous Sabbath in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute students, faculty, staff and community members filled the multipurpose room and spilled into the hallway. Overflow seating was available in Stackhouse Theater, where the event was live-streamed.

The memorial service began with statements of solidarity from representatives from a group of local churches, religious organizations on campus and Rockbridge Interfaith group. A candle was lit as the names of the victims were read aloud. Traditional Jewish prayers for remembrance and healing were read in both Hebrew and English by students.

Maggie Shapiro Haskett, the university’s director of Jewish Life, spoke about the importance of Jewish tradition and the Washington and Lee community in the face of this tragedy.

“Jewish tradition shows us what to do,” she said, “and the W&L community has shown us they know what to do.”

She also discussed four important parts of mourning: showing up for each other, opening up, reaching out and getting up.

Lee Bernstein, ‘20, the president of the Hillel Student Board, spoke on the power of love in the face of such utter hatred.

“Love will win,” she said. “Even if this seems scary, it will not stop love from winning.”

Those attending the service were encouraged to hold hands during a moment of silence and remembrance.

Shapiro Haskett commented after the service that she wasn’t sure if this would be too uncomfortable, but decided to encourage it anyway.

“We need to have those moments that force us to think,” she said.

Simon Levy, chair of the Hillel Advisory Board, asked attendees to stand for the reading of the mourner’s Kaddish, a traditional prayer for remembering loved ones who have died memory.

Bernstein said after the event that the details and rules surrounding the Kaddish differs between sects of Judaism. She said the fact that everyone stood and recited was a “very powerful statement of unity and solidarity – a way of expressing how personal this loss is for everyone.”

While the Jewish community at Washington and Lee mourns for the senseless loss of life, many of the members of Hillel said they feel very safe and supported in this community.

“Last night blew all expectations,” said Isaac Rosenthal, ‘19, vice president of the Hillel Student Board.

“I knew this was a good place when I came here,” Shapiro Haskett added. “It breaks my heart that it took this for me to see the depth of that, but if there is a silver lining it’s that we all feel so supported.”

The shooting is believed to be the deadliest act of anti-Semitism that has happened in the United States. Robert Bowers, 46, of Pittsburgh was accused of 44 charges for the shooting, included hate crimes, all of which he pleaded not guilty.

“We’re in Lexington. It’s safe,” Bernstein said. “But it makes you think a lot more. This really makes you back up and think about that this still exists.”