Religious groups honor Pittsburgh victims at vigil

USC community members gather and pray in the University Religious Center courtyard Tuesday to honor the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting. (Naiya Ross | Daily Trojan)

In light of the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Penn. on Saturday, nearly 100 USC community members gathered at the University Religious Center to hold a prayer vigil in honor of the 11 victims Tuesday evening.

“It was devastating. Heartbreaking,” Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni said. “It is very difficult to make sense of such a senseless act, such a heinous hate crime. When it happens in a house of worship while people are praying, it impacts religious communities in, I think, even a deeper way.”

Soni said that because the shooting happened during prayer, it was bound to affect both the religious and nonreligious communities at USC. Soni wrote in an email to the USC community on Monday that anti-Semitism has been on the rise in recent years and that has lead to an increasingly difficult time for the Jewish community on USC’s campus.

“Our extraordinary religious diversity gives us the privilege and the responsibility to learn and grow with and through each other, while cultivating interfaith relationships and inter-religious experiences that empower us to tell new stories about ourselves and our world,” Soni wrote.

Interim President Wanda Austin sent an email to the USC community on Tuesday offering condolences to the victims’ families and gratitude for the first responders to the event.

“Events such as these are deeply painful, and at USC, we are so fortunate to have a close-knit and strong interfaith community, one that helps us come together, imagine a kinder world, and ultimately heal,” Austin wrote.

Director of Religious Life Rabbi Dov Wagner emphasized the need for the USC community needs to unite and support others during difficult times like this.

“What happens on one side of the country or the world affects all of us,” Wagner said. “This was the largest attack on Jews on American soil and we need for students to come together to focus on togetherness and strength.”

During the vigil, University and student leaders gave brief remarks and asked the community to pray for the lives lost in the tragedy.

After the candle lighting ceremony, attendees were invited to publicly share their feelings donate to charity boxes and fill out mitzvah pledge cards.

“It’s just so heart-wrenching that these people were just doing something that I do in my daily life and were killed because of that,” said co-President of Chabad Avia Cohen. “There is this idea in Judaism based on all of our unfortunate tragic events that a crisis can either break you or it can make you stronger … It is a time for us to … respond to this hate and this darkness with light.”

Student representatives from various organizations, including the Shoah Foundation and Undergraduate Student Government, spoke at the vigil. Representatives from student organizations, including USC Helenes, Interfaith Council and Sigma Alpha Mu, each lit candles in memoriam of each of the victims of the shooting.

Undergraduate Student Government canceled its weekly meeting Tuesday to allow senators to attend the vigil.

Eddie Mack, a sophomore majoring in international relations and a member of Interfaith Council, attended the vigil to show support for the Jewish community.

“In order to fight bigotry and ignorance, it has to be a communal effort that extends across all sorts of religious and ethnic lines,” Mack said.

Last week, Chabad @ USC hosted Shabbat 1,000, an event that gathered over 1,100 students to celebrate the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest. This week, the organization is encouraging students to attend Show Up to Shabbat — a series of services on Friday and Saturday to honor the lost lives in Pittsburgh.

“It is important to be a part of a community on campus. I would suggest that they come to either Hillel or Chabad,” Soni said. “For all students, what I’ve found in times of national tragedy like this is that … in the immediate aftermath of such a tragedy, the best resource are other students. Our best resources are each other.”

Soni also encouraged students who are having trouble processing the events of this past weekend to come to the Office of Religious Life, where students can be connected to pastoral care and spiritual counseling, among other resources.

“It’s horrifying to think that in today’s day and age, we still face such kinds of acts, such hatred that attacks people for no other reason than because of who they are,” Wagner said. “But we can’t fight darkness with a broom or with a stick, you fight it by lighting a candle. And when tragic events like this take place, we need to add more light, more love.”