PITTSBURGH — Residents united in grief Sunday, gathering in prayer, song and tears as they struggled to cope with the massacre of 11 worshippers at a local synagogue by a gunman authorities said harbored anti-Semitic feelings.
Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life synagogue, who previously served at a Long Island temple, turned his and the community’s grief into a call for action, leading a vigil Sunday night with a fiery address demanding an end to hate speech and leadership from elected officials.
A day after being helped from the synagogue by police, he said messages from around the world sustained him.
The messages, he said, communicate that “We are here for you.”
“My cup overflows with love — that’s how you defeat hate,” he told the overflow crowd gathered at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum.
But the memories remained raw, for Myers and others in the city’s close-knit Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
The shooting started a few minutes after services began Saturday, Meyers told the thousands gathered for Sunday night’s interfaith service.
“There were 12 of us in the sanctuary at the time … I helped pull out the people that I could from the front,” he said. “Seven of my congregants were shot dead in my sanctuary. My holy place has been defiled.”
The vigil featured speakers from Jewish, Catholic and Islamic faiths. Someone sang God Bless America. A rabbi recited prayers in Hebrew. A Muslim Pittsburgh police officer read from the Quran. So many people filled the cavernous hall that many others were left to stand outside in the rain.
Throughout the day Sunday, mourners old and young, of different religions and races went to the Tree of Life to pay their respects in the neighborhood that is known as the center of Jewish life in Pittsburgh. A woman in her 80s, limping along with a cane, arrived. Young children holding their parents’ hands walked the neighborhood streets.
People sang religious songs. Some cried.
Stars of David sculpted from wood, painted white and affixed atop pedestals were placed on the sidewalk in tribute, each adorned with a brightly colored heart and personalized with a name of one of the dead.
“They were all beautiful people,” Rabbi Chuck Diamond said as he scanned the official list of the dead outside the synagogue he previously served for seven years.
The victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting ranged in age from 54 to 97 years old. Brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54, were “quite close” and “hung around the synagogue all the time; it was like a second home,” said Debbie Friedman, a Pittsburgh resident who knew the pair.
Nathaniel Hundt, who lives blocks from the synagogue, placed a single flower at one of the streetside memorials that sprang up in the neighborhood.
“I sort of felt more comfortable in this Jewish community,” said Hundt, 33, who moved to Pittsburgh about a year ago. “I’ve lived in a lot of neighborhoods. This is the most welcoming one I lived in.”
Kun Zhang, a local university professor and his student Ming Gong, who carried a bunch of bright orange daffodils to the synagogue, said they were so stung by the massacre, they wanted to show respect for the victims.
“What happened is really horrible,” said Zhang, 38. “The community, everyone should support each other right now.”
Mary Anne McNerney and dozens of her fellow parishioners from St. Bede Catholic Church walked about a half-mile to Tree of Life Synagogue after their 11 a.m. Mass in a show of solidarity.
“I’m just shaken,” said McNerney, 75, of Pittsburgh’s Edgemere neighborhood.
McNerney, who has a niece in Northport, said when she heard of the massacre at Tree of Life, she thought of the 2015 hate crime shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina that left nine dead. She said she won’t change anything about the way she worships.
“When the president talks about having a show of arms at every synagogue, every little church in the country? That’s not sustainable,” she said.
Rabbi Shmuel Rothstein, the Chabad rabbi at the University of Pittsburgh, said he advised dozens of his students to push past their grief.
“We decided to take that energy, that pain that was happening, by just bringing good deeds to the world,” he said. “Prayers aren’t going to bring them back; crying isn’t going to bring them back. While we lost 11 lives, all we can do is act with kindness.”
Dani Dayan, the consul general of Israel in New York, said Sunday he went to Pittsburgh the night of the massacre, lit a candle and said a prayer for the victims. On Sunday, he started his day with the same acts.
“I couldn’t think of being anywhere else,” Dayan said.