‘They’re our brothers and sisters’
Community unites to honor victims
HOLLIDAYSBURG — Mike and Karen Watt of Altoona stood with hundreds of others, with candles in their hands, shadowed by the Blair County Courthouse, at a prayer service Thursday for the 11 Jewish people killed Saturday at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
The Watts aren’t Jewish, but many of the people at the service and vigil, which drew about 400 people, represented either other religious faiths or were unaffiliated. The Watts are members of the Bahai faith, which teaches the worth of all religions and encourages unity among all people, according to bahai.org.
Mike said he felt compelled to come to the prayer service because his faith teaches that all people are equal, whatever the faith calls their God. He also said followers of Bahai, which was founded in Iran when it was known as Persia, have a history of persecution like the Jewish people.
The 11 people killed at Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh were allegedly shot by Robert Bowers of Pittsburgh as police said he shouted anti-Semitic rants.
“We support the Jewish community because they’re our brothers and sisters,” Mike Watt said Thursday. “We all follow the same God of Israel, whether you call him Jesus, Jehovah, Muhammed, Allah or whatever. Our brothers and sisters are hurting, so it just seemed fitting that we would come here to pray with them.”
When the pews at Zion Lutheran Church got full, people gathered downstairs where they could watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV.
The service consisted of a poignant series of hymns, sung and recited psalms and 11 silent prayers and reflections, one each for the shooting victims. In front of the church, a table held 11 white pillar candles, each candle representing one of the victims.
A votive candle burned in front of every pillar candle. Speakers who represented area churches gave little glimpses of the people behind the victims’ names as they spoke about “Pittsburgh’s 11,” as they’re now called.
The Rev. Edward Harshbarger, a retired Lutheran minister, spoke about Holocaust survivor Rose Mallinger, 97, who was killed Saturday.
“One month ago, my daughter and I spent the day at Dachau (former concentration camp in Germany),” he said, “only to find out that it’s not dead yet. Let it die with this generation.”
There were moments of high energy during the service, such as when some speakers exhorted the congregation to answer with a vigorous “Amen!” that they will not let the shooter’s hate triumph, but they’ll respond with love. Both Bishop Michael Rhyne, who made that exhortation and who oversees the Allegheny Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Rev. Joy Kaufmann, the general presbyter of the Huntingdon Presbytery, evoked the words of Martin Luther King Jr. King cautioned “that hate cannot overcome hate, only love can overcome hate.”
Rabbi Audrey Korotkin of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona recited the “Mourner’s Kaddish,” which she reminded people is not a prayer for the dead, but a declaration of faith in the everlasting God. She said people in the audience Thursday night had ties to the Tree of Life synagogue, such as one couple who had gotten married there.
The people then moved across the street to the courthouse to finish their vigil with lit candles and another song, “Let There be Peace on Earth.”
The huge turnout gratified the organizers, like Bill Wallen, executive director of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation, which along with the Agudath Achim Synagogue, Temple Beth Israel, The Allegheny Lutheran Synod and other church leaders, sponsored the event.
“I’m amazed at the show of support from the Christian community,” he said.
Rhyne had contacted Wallen and other Jewish leaders after the shooting to see how he could help. They asked if he could organize the service, and Rhyne had no trouble getting help from others in the Christian community.
“This tragedy has touched a lot of people,” he said. “It’s close. Pennsylvania isn’t that big, and it’s a house of worship. I think people think because it happened at a house of worship, people think it could be any house of worship.”