Earlier this year, an interfaith group of Loudoun residents gathered at the Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Leesburg to talk about life after hate.
On Monday night, Loudoun residents once again gathered in solidarity to mourn the victims of the deadly Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.
“Our presence here tonight is a powerful statement of what truly unites our community and our country, the belief in our essential American freedoms and the American dream that allows us to live our lives with integrity and authenticity, no matter how we feel called to do so,” Congregation Sha’are Shalom Rabbi David Greenspoon said.
Saturday’s shooting in the Pittsburgh synagogue took the lives of 11 worshipers, with two more being injured and four police officers hurt as well.
Greenspoon said he was at Congregation Sha’are Shalom for Shabbat — the Jewish sabbath — and the congregation was exploring biblical texts about what constitutes a just society when he was notified of the shooting.
“Just two days ago, Shabbat around the world was shattered,” Greenspoon said. “...The prayers were said and the praise was offered, but even so, it was not Shabbat the same way anymore. It could have been us, literally, and in some ways, it was. Hatred has a specific target and the blindness of hatred moves beyond that.”
The vigil was standing-room only, with Loudoun residents of all background filling the sanctuary seats and lining the walls. They also filled two additional overflow areas. Attendees heard songs and prayers and remarks from elected officials.
Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk became emotional as she addressed attendees, saying she couldn’t believe everyone had again been called to honor the slain of a mass shooting.
“Please use the love that’s in this room to do something, to be kinder, to be helpful, to be loving, to be lovable. I don’t know how we solve this, but I know we must, and I know we have to do it together,” Burk said.
Congresswoman Barbara Comstock (R-Va.-10th) thanked the community for attending the vigil, calling the response to the shooting a universal one of condolences and prayer.
“Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or views, that place must at that moment become the center of the universe, said Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel. Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue tonight is that center, and we are gathered here, an interfaith community, and we stand united against these anti-Semitic murders,” Comstock said.
Comstock also thanked law enforcement officers who protect places of worship. The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office and Leesburg Police Department were recognized during the vigil for their work in keeping the community safe.
LCSO deputies checked in with the Sha’are Shalom congregation the day of the shooting and stayed until the worship activities had concluded to make sure people felt safe, Congregation Sha’are Shalom President Heidi Dodds said.
“We may be heartbroken and scared, but we are not deterred and we will not be broken,” Dodds said.
Democratic congressional candidate and state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-33rd) recounted a story of George Washington visiting the largest Jewish community in America in Rhode Island in 1790. He quoted the Old Testament, saying, “Here in America everyone shall sit in safety under their own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make you afraid.”
“None should be afraid in America. None should be afraid in their synagogues, none should be afraid in their churches and their temples and their mosques ... But they are, and now none of us can sit in safety under our own fig tree. We need to act. We need to change what is happening around us,” Wexton said.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) told vigil attendees that the commonwealth supports them, and he urged them to draw strength from one another.
“As a community of faith, I think we have a special opportunity to carry a message of hope and strength, because that’s what communities of faith do. That’s what we do,” Herring said.
Rizwan Jaka, an All Dulles Area Muslim Society board member, said an attack on one house of worship is an attack on all houses of worship, prompting an interfaith response.
He read a statement from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and a joint letter from some state and local legislators denouncing hate and violence and expressing support for the Pittsburgh community.
Loudoun Interfaith Bridges Chair Paria Akhavan read the names of the victims of the shooting, and Loudoun NAACP President Phillip Thompson lit a candle in remembrance.
“We will affirm that we believe that America is better than the hatred we saw,” Greenspoon said. “Finally, tonight we answer hate with statements of faith, that we can and will make a better reality for us all, in the wake of murderous expressions of hatred.”