Jewish communities and citizens across Canada gathered together over the weekend to commemorate the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and condemn what one rabbi described as “an outrageous act of evil.”
Vigils and rallies were organized in a number of Canadian cities, including Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Halifax and Vancouver.
Rabbi Reuben Poupko, who is originally from Pittsburgh, said no Jewish community has been left untouched by the shooting that left 11 people dead and six injured.
Toronto will hold a vigil to honour the victims at Mel Lastman Square Monday evening, hosted by the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.
A vigil set for Monday evening at Montreal’s Beth Israel Beth Aaron synagogue will be a chance for community members to draw hope and strength from each other, he said.
“All of us can relate to what happened,” he said in a phone interview.
“We go to synagogues that look just like (Tree of Life) synagogue. Our ties and bonds of history and of solidarity and our values are very strong.”
Poupko said he grew up in Pittsburgh’s “tight-knit” Jewish community, where his father was a rabbi for 60 years.
He said Jewish people have always been targets of hate crimes both in Canada and elsewhere, and that the number of those alleged crimes have been rising in recent years.
But he said they’ve never experienced anything like Saturday’s mass shooting, which the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group, has said it believes is the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.
“Eleven people murdered in a synagogue in an outrageous act of evil,” he said. The suspected gunman, Robert Gregory Bowers, faces dozens of federal and state charges, including hate crimes, and is due in court on Monday.
Poupko became emotional as he spoke about 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, a Holocaust survivor who died in the shooting.
“To survive the Holocaust and find refuge in a free country and lose your life doing what you’re supposed to do, going to synagogue on a Saturday morning … is not a thing that is easily understood,” he said, his voice breaking.
He said his community is comforted by the support of other faith groups and ordinary citizens, who have come together to unanimously denounce the violence.
Poupko said Montreal’s synagogues were remaining open and the community would continue to fight acts of hate in the only way they know how.
“The best way is to continue to do what we do with greater intensity,” he said, “which is to lead lives of tolerance, to lead lives where we understand that ultimately the power of good is more powerful than evil, where we continue to strengthen the bonds between individuals and communities and hope the light will block out the darkness.”
Senior Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Shalom in Vancouver said the community planned to hold a memorial Sunday afternoon at the city’s Jewish Community Centre.
“It came together out of a need to not feel alone and isolated at a time when we feel very vulnerable as a community,” he said.
“Remarkably, this man who tried to destroy and tear down our faith tradition had just the opposite effect.”
Moskovitz added that the tragedy has brought together not only Jewish people, but believers across religious communities, in solidarity.
Sadly, most synagogues have emergency protocols in case of attacks and his Vancouver temple boosted security measures after news broke of the attack, he said.
When the shooter entered the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday, the Pittsburg rabbi would have been reading the same scripture that Moskovitz read to his Vancouver congregation, he said. Jewish tradition dictates that the same Torah passages are read on the same weekends around the world.
“So we were reading the same story they were reading – and strikingly, it was a story about welcoming the stranger. The story of Abraham and Sarah who rush out in the Book of Genesis to welcome strangers into their midst to practise hospitality,” Moskovitz said.
“That’s why the doors of the synagogue are open, so that anybody can come in, seek shelter, seek comfort and seek peace.”
While the incident has created fear, he said he would encourage congregation members to focus on love and not hatred.
In Ottawa, mourners planned to gather in front of the Human Rights Monument late Sunday for what was described as a solidarity vigil against anti-Semitism and white supremacy.
The organizers said in a statement that the event would be both an act of mourning and a demonstration against acts of racism and bigotry around the world.
“As Jews, anti-racist activists and residents of Ottawa, we want to send the message that hate crimes against Jews do not exist in isolation from the violent rise of white supremacy around the globe,” co-organizers Genevieve Nevin and Darrah Teitel wrote.
Another demonstration took place in front of Montreal’s Holocaust Museum on Sunday afternoon, while an event was also expected to take place in Halifax.
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