More than 100 Hillels around the world, stretching from Florida to Hungary, organized last-minute vigils this week to commemorate the victims of the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh.
At Miami University Hillel, Elise Kramer cupped a flickering candle in the darkening twilight as she recited the Mourner’s Kaddish.
The 21-year-old prayed alongside more than 200 students, faculty and community members during an interfaith vigil on Monday evening. Their voices echoed through the heart of campus as they sang Mi Shebeirach and Lo Yisa Goy.
“My Judaism is the most important part of my life,” said Kramer, an intern at Miami University Hillel. “With my strongest identity shaken, I must stand in solidarity with my Jewish and non-Jewish siblings and walk for peace on Earth for all.”
The shooting rampage at Tree of Life synagogue, resulting in the deaths of 11 congregants and wounding six others, is the deadliest attack against the Jewish community in the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Students from American University Hillel gathered at the Kay Spiritual Life Center on Monday afternoon for a memorial ceremony. They listened as their classmate Drew Klein, who regularly attended Tree of Life with her family since age 4, spoke about her connection to the synagogue.
The 19-year-old celebrated Purim in Tree of Life’s sanctuary. She became a bat mitzvah on the synagogue’s bimah. She spent her high school years serving as a Hebrew tutor to students there.
“This is a community where everybody knows everybody,” Klein said. “This hits home for me.”
Eric D. Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International, traveled to Pittsburgh on Sunday to spend time with students from the Hillel Jewish University Center, which serves Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh.
“We cannot forget and go back to our daily lives,” Fingerhut said. “We must stand with this community and support them always. And we must realize that Squirrel Hill and Tree of Life could have been any of our close-knit Jewish communities or any of our synagogues. This was an attack on all of us.”
On Tuesday, professionals and students from George Washington University Hillel and Base Hillel in New York City traveled to Pittsburgh to attend funerals for the victims and visit families observing shiva.
One of those students was Zachary Bernstein, accompanied by 12 of his peers from GW Hillel. Bleary-eyed, he boarded an early morning bus to attend the funerals of two brothers whom he’d never met — Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54.
From the road, Bernstein, 19, posted on his Facebook page: “Can you mourn someone you never knew? Someone who you never heard of during their life? I don’t know….It’s critically important that as a Jewish community we are there for each other, and I’m going to Pittsburgh to stand with the Jewish community there in whatever ways I can.”
This week, local Hillels are helping students find comfort by welcoming therapy dogs to campus, hosting unity Shabbat dinners and offering grief counseling services.
As she continued to grieve, Rachel Wolson snuggled with a puppy named Zena, who spent Wednesday with students at the University of Vermont Hillel. The 18-year-old said she continues to find solace in the supportive Jewish community on campus.
Wolson said, “We are uniting now more than ever in strength.”
Paige Gutter and Kayla Steinberg contributed to this story.