Students, faculty, staff and community members gathered in the hundreds around the Cook-Carillon Tower on Monday, Oct. 29 with candles in hand to honor the 11 lives lost during the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh the weekend prior. The candlelight vigil and concurrent speeches were organized by students from Hillel and Alpha Epsilon Pi, a Jewish campus organization and Jewish fraternity respectively.
The vigil included speeches by members of GVSU’s Jewish community, Vice Provost of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Loren Rullman, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs Maria Cimitile, President Thomas Haas and Rabbi Michael Schadick of Temple Emanuel. The crowd swelled with faces from all walks of life, which Haas said reflected the gravity of the attack on the community as a whole.
“This attack in Pittsburgh was an attack on (everyone). It was an attack on our values as a people, as a nation,” Haas said during the event. “It was an attack here, at Grand Valley, because if you look at your mission – to shape student lives, their professions and their societies – there’s an impact on us. When that happens, we need to stand strong. When I’m looking around at this group of individuals, we are standing strong.”
The theme of “community” made its way through nearly every speech on Monday night, with different communities grieving, rallying and supporting one another. For Alpha Epsilon Pi President Morgan Mattler, “community” meant belonging to a synagogue very similar to the Tree of Life community. Realizing that a shooter would want to target people “simply for the crime of being Jewish” made Mattler realize that it could have just as easily been his community.
“My Jewish community is no different than (the Tree of Life community), not one ounce different,” Mattler said. “Growing up, I went to a synagogue exactly like the Tree of Life, and I grew up in a tight-knit community where the elderly would get to the synagogue early and get there often. Between the baby namings, the weddings, the bar and bat mitzvahs, there was always some kind of happy occasion to celebrate and to be together for.”
Mattler said he found out about the shooting on his way to the Battle of the Valleys football game, initially following the flow of information as it came in. When fellow Alpha Epsilon Pi member Ben Friedman mentioned having a vigil on campus, Mattler reached out to Allison Egrin of Hillel, who had a similar idea, and Hillel Emerson Fellow Zach Kirshner to assemble a team to organize and speak at the vigil.
“Part of (the idea) was because we had a vigil for Parkland, and I went to that and I didn’t feel impacted by it,” Friedman said. “This was an opportunity to make an impact for people who are like me in the sense that it not only lets them know that they’re not alone, but it lets everyone else on campus know that these students are here, and right now is a very sensitive time for them.”
Friedman said he grew up very connected to a range of religious attacks in his hometowns.
“This is the largest Jewish-targeted attack since the Kansas City Jewish community center (attack), which I grew up with in Kansas City,” Friedman said. “It was the largest religious attack since the Sikh Temple (attack) outside of Milwaukee (where I lived).”
As the vigil drew to a close, Schadick spoke about the outpouring support that his synagogue’s community – the largest in West Michigan – has received. Before leading the crowd in prayer to close his speech, he said the kind words and gestures surrounding the Jewish community gave a comforting reassurance that things would get better.
“I felt (tikvah) on Saturday evening soon after I arrived at the synagogue for an afternoon bat mitzvah ceremony,” Schadick said. “Someone knocked on the temple door, who I don’t know, and handed us a bouquet of roses, and said to us, ‘You’re in our prayers and know that you’re not alone…’ Despite this tragedy of 11 lives being lost, there is in fact, tikvah: hope.”
Between the flickering of candles, speeches and hands binding a crowd nearly 300 strong together, Friedman said that he’s been greeted with a moment of comfort in an area where he has typically felt like a religious outsider.
“When I came and toured here on campus, I felt like an outsider with the surrounding area being so Christian,” Friedman said. “This has been the first reaffirmation of comfort… (The vigil) was a reaffirmation of ‘you are welcome here.’”
For students still seeking support, Mattler said that both Hillel and Alpha Epsilon Pi are available to work with and listen to students. On campus, the Office of Multicultural Affairs and University Counseling Center all offer resources for students affected by the shooting.