Oceanside hosts vigil after Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

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In the wake of the mass shooting that left 11 dead at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, hundreds of local residents gathered for a candlelight vigil at the Oceanside Veterans Triangle on Oct. 30.

Rabbi Levi Gurkov, co-director of the Chabad of Oceanside, one of the organizations that hosted the event, said it was a “phenomenal showing of the community, of all different denominations, coming together.”

The Chabad hosted the vigil along with the Friedberg Jewish Community Center, the Hewlett/East Rockaway Jewish Centre, the Oceanside Jewish Center, Temple Avodah and Young Israel of Oceanside. All congregations and churches in town were invited, according to members of the Oceanside Jewish Center.

The event offered messages of hope, unity, and defiance of the rise of hate and prejudice. Speakers agreed that now is the time to come together and be vigilant against divisiveness. They also praised the Oceanside community for its show of support, and asked that residents keep the shooting victims in their memories.

“I look out at you with your candles, look at this square full of people, and I think to myself, ‘Yes. Yes!’” said Rabbi Andrew Warmflash of the Hew-lett/East Rockaway Jewish Centre. “They’re not going to win. They’re not going to win! Not in America. Because America is different, because we value diversity, because we learn from each other. America is different. This is a setback, it’s not a defeat, and we will go on to win.”

According to Nassau County police, a swastika was discovered carved in a sidewalk on Ocean-side Road over the weekend. In response, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, State Sen. Todd Kaminsky and Kevin Smith, first deputy commissioner of the Nassau County Police Department, called a news conference Monday as the Herald went to press. NCPD Detective Sgt. Richard LeBrun told the Herald that no suspects had been identified as of press time.

During the vigil, Joni Center, executive director of the Friedberg JCC, and Sam Seifman, president of JECOCO, read the names of 17 people killed and wounded in Pittsburgh.

“Let’s each add one more act of kindness to our routine and dedicate it to the memory of those ruthlessly killed,” Gurkov said, “and the merit of all our collective good deeds will each bring much comfort and peace in this challenging time.” He reminded the Jewish community to wear their Jewish identity proudly.

The NCPD was present at the vigil, blocking off the portion of Davison Avenue directly south of the Triangle and directing traffic across Long Beach Road. As participants young and old joined the crowd, volunteers handed out candles and song sheets with lyrics to “Oseh Shalom Bimromav” and “Hineh Ma Tov,” two Jewish hymns. The Stop & Shop in Oceanside donated candles, and Island Park-based Appco Paper & Plastics Corporation donated paper supplies.

Town of Hempstead officials provided the mobile stage where an altar with candles was placed — one for each of the murdered victims, arranged next to their name and photo. The vigil ended with the singing of “God Bless America.”

The vigil was a reminder of what happened shortly before 10 a.m. on Oct. 27, when Richard Bowers walked into the synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh and opened fire.

According to multiple reports, Bowers, 46, had posted an anti-Jewish message on his Gab social media account minutes earlier that read, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Police responded to the scene after a call to the Allegheny County Emergency Operations Center surfaced about an active shooter. Bower used an AR-15 assault rifle to kill 11 people and injure six others, including four police officers.

Bowers, who was also shot, was charged by federal officials with 29 criminal counts, including obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs — a hate crime — and using a firearm to commit murder. He also faces state charges, including 11 counts of criminal homicide, six counts of aggravated assault and 13 counts of ethnic intimidation.

In reaction to the shooting, Gurkov and other congregation leaders organized the Oceanside vigil. Gurkov led the evening’s ceremonies, which began with the roughly 400 attendees lighting candles in the presence of religious leaders and elected officials. Gurkov; Warmflash; Rabbi Mark Greenspan, of the Oceanside Jewish Center; Kaminsky; Councilwoman Denise Ford; and the Rev. Russ Roth, president of the Interfaith Council, all spoke at the event. In addition, Rabbi Uri Goren, of Temple Avodah, and Rabbi Jonathan Muskat, of Young Israel, read Pslam 27 in Hebrew and English, respectively.

“It was amazing to see the support of the community,” said Daniel Graber, a rabbinic intern at the Oceanside Jewish Center. “Often our differences are the things that divide us, but this [event] crossed all those borders, and as a Jewish person, I felt very held and supported. This [coming together] is what it means to be American.”

Jeffrey Bessen and Mike Smollins contributed to this story.