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Emotional vigil in Boston brings people together to mourn Pittsburgh synagogue victims

Elijah Wiesman, 16, of Arlington (center), linked arms with others and sang during a vigil for Bostonians to stand with the Pittsburgh Jewish community after the mass shooting at a synagogue there.
Elijah Wiesman, 16, of Arlington (center), linked arms with others and sang during a vigil for Bostonians to stand with the Pittsburgh Jewish community after the mass shooting at a synagogue there.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Religious, political, and civic leaders offered full-throated support for their Jewish “brothers and sisters” during an emotional vigil Sunday on the Boston Common, where they denounced anti-Semitism, bigotry, and the brutal violence that claimed the lives of 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue the day before.

Among the speakers was Ariel Stein, a Boston University student who has belonged all her life to the Tree of Life Synagogue, where the deadly shootings took place.

“It is up to all of us to love each other. . . and to stand up for the other in society,” Stein told about 1,000 people gathered around the Common’s Parkman Bandstand.

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On Saturday, Robert Gregory Bowers allegedly killed 11 people in the synagogue during worship services, according to authorities. Bowers, 46, told police after his arrest that he wanted to “kill Jews.”

The city’s mayor, Bill Peduto, said the shootings were the ‘‘darkest day of Pittsburgh’s history.’’

Across the country, vigils were held in honor of the victims Sunday. In Massachusetts, the victims were honored in many communities, including Newton, Cambridge, Lexington, Waltham, Swampscott, Worcester, and Springfield.

Boston’s gathering, in the same spot where Dr. Martin Luther King spoke to crowds more than 50 years ago, included prayers for the victims of Saturday’s shooting, each of whom was remembered by name.

A woman held a sign of support .
A woman held a sign of support .(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Nearby, large-scale photographic portraits of Holocaust survivors were on display as part of a public art exhibit that opened earlier this month.

Stein talked about attending the synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, where storefronts display the message “love thy neighbor” in Arabic, Spanish, and Hebrew.

“Although Squirrel Hill suffered the largest blow [that] could have ever happened yesterday, I know that we will bounce back,” Stein said. “And I hope that all communities can embody loving thy neighbor, as well.”

Elaine Mermer of Framingham wiped tears from her eyes during the vigil.
Elaine Mermer of Framingham wiped tears from her eyes during the vigil.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Governor Charlie Baker quoted from the Talmud in his remarks, and told the crowd “that good always triumphs over evil.” He said the country is about freedom, faith, community, and diversity, his voice raw and rising as he spoke.

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“Most of all, it is about remembering every time someone is lost, that there is work to do, and that none of us should ever abandon our commitment to build a better, and a stronger, and a more inclusive Commonwealth and a more inclusive country,” Baker said.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston said he had spoken to the mayor of Pittsburgh an hour before the vigil, and Peduto had a message: “Thank you, Boston.”

Walsh said from his vantage point on the bandstand, he could see the crowd growing at the vigil.

“We’re here today because we’re letting the Jewish community know that we’re standing with them, here in Boston and around the world,” Walsh said, calling the shooting “an anti-Semitic mass murder.”

A mother held her son during the vigil.
A mother held her son during the vigil.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III said everyone at the vigil was gathered in solidarity with the Jewish community, which has been “mercilessly targeted” in recent years.

“We hold their hands today. We pledge our hearts to yours. And we say that we stand with you,” Kennedy said. “And most of all, we gather in strength to say with one voice that we will not sit idly by while hatred. . . finds quarter in our United States.”

Robert Trestan of the Anti-Defamation League decried the rising level of anti-Semitism in the United States.

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“Anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem,” he said. “It is an American problem.”

Shaykh Yasir Fahmy, with the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, said the people who died at the synagogue were victims of a “disease” of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and bigotry which are, “embedded, unfortunately, in many hearts.”

Members of the crowd applauded a speaker during the vigil.
Members of the crowd applauded a speaker during the vigil.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Americans are being torn apart, he said, when they should be coming together.

“We have to know with certainty that as human beings we are inherently good,” he said. “We don’t need to hate, we don’t need to be separated, we don’t need to attack one another, we don’t need to fear each other.”

He later told the crowd: “As a Muslim, I love you.”

A feeling of deep interconnectedness pervaded the vigil, where attendees ran into friends and family by chance, and voices broke out spontaneously in Jewish songs.

Some people carried signs. “We will not be divided from each other or from you,” one said.

Another said, “We stand together.”

Strangers joined hands, and at the end, many recited the Hebrew words to the Mourner’s Kaddish in unison.

Gideon Klionsky, 29, of Somerville was racked with emotion at the end of the vigil, when a circle of at least 100 people formed and songs broke out. Friends surrounded him in an embrace.

Klionsky’s grandparents, who both died in the past two years, lived directly across from the synagogue that was attacked.

“The largest mass killing of Jews in America was across the street,” he said, struggling as he thought about how his grandparents would have felt.

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“I can’t even imagine,” Klionsky said, tugging at his beard with emotion. “I can’t imagine.”

From left to right: Eli Witkin of Cambridge, Gideon Klionsky of Somerville, and Beni Summers of Somerville held hands and linked arms at the vigil.
From left to right: Eli Witkin of Cambridge, Gideon Klionsky of Somerville, and Beni Summers of Somerville held hands and linked arms at the vigil.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

A Jewish woman, who declined to give her name, said the attack in Pittsburgh was all too familiar to her, as a child survivor of the Holocaust.

She said she was 12 when she was smuggled out of Poland, only to be taken to a concentration camp, including seven months in Auschwitz with her mother.

She has carried a fear of crowds from the trauma of her youth, and yet she felt she had to attend the vigil. “This is one of those moments that feels important,” she said.

“This touches me very deeply,” said the woman, who requested her name not be used for fear of online attacks. “I saw how Hitler came to power,” she said, citing an atmosphere of propaganda, lies, and fear that Jews feel after the attacks.

“This really troubles me,” she said. “It hurts my heart.”


Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com. Lucas Phillips can be reached atlucas.phillips@globe.com.