Parents held their children, couples clutched each other and bystanders wept as about 100 people gathered in a steady drizzle outside the Tree of Life Synagogue for what a former rabbi there termed a healing service one week after the deadliest attack targeting Jewish people in U.S. history.
Rabbi Chuck Diamond led a service of prayers, songs and poetry and reminisced about some of the worshipers killed, as Shabbat services memorializing the 11 dead and six wounded were held Saturday at synagogues across the country.
“I almost expected Cecil to greet me this morning,” Diamond said of Cecil Rosenthal, 59, killed along with his brother, David, 54, in the Oct. 27 shooting inside the synagogue in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
Diamond called the victims “angels given to us, full of love and life.”
In the last week, people told him of weddings, bar mitzvahs and other ceremonies they’d held at the synagogue. “This is a place, a building that has stood for joy, but now it is forever stained,” Diamond said. But the shooting “cannot overshadow [that] this building is and will be into the future a place of joy.”
He said he took great comfort in seeing people of all faiths come together since the shooting and for his prayer vigil Saturday.
“It’s important to come and take care of your community when something like this happens. I want to be in solidarity,” said Andrew Allison, who attended Saturday’s service.
Before coming to the outdoor service, Steve Irwin, 59, and a friend stopped by a Squirrel Hill coffee shop. “When we went to pay, we were told all the coffee was paid for by the Sandy Hook community,” referring to Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” Irwin said, standing outside Tree of Life on Saturday with his dog. “It shows how incumbent it is upon us to pay it forward to the next community this happens, which we hope never happens, but we know it will happen.”
The outdoor service “gives you a sense of normalcy, which is impossible to find right now,” he said.
About half a mile away at Congregation Beth Shalom, worshipers, including several members of Tree of Life, gathered for Shabbat.
They honored Augie Siriano, 59, the 25-year Tree of Life custodian, who witnessed the shooting. “I had tea with Cecil [Rosenthal] 10 minutes before I found him,” Siriano said later, wiping away tears.
“Augie just loved them,” said Siriano’s girlfriend, Rose Battista.
Scott Priester, 48, a Lutheran, came to Beth Shalom on Saturday — his first Shabbat service. “The shooting rocked me to the core, more than anything in my personal life,” he said.
Gary Friedman, 65, called the massacre “a blow, a stab to the heart.”
Meanwhile, in New York City, Central Synagogue was packed with Jews and non-Jews alike gathered for a special Shabbat service.
“It’s such a tragedy that happened in Pittsburgh, and I was touched by the calling of the Jewish community to welcome non-Jews into their synagogues today, so I couldn’t resist and I came,” said Steven Kent, an Episcopalian. “It was a wonderful feeling.”