Tree of Life victims honored in candlelight vigil

Photo by Scott Yunker

A candle-lighting vigil commemorating the 11 victims of the recent massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh was held in front of the Arch at the center of campus on Monday afternoon. Mahwah Mayor William Laforet, President Mercer and other members of the Ramapo administration were among those in attendance.

“We are here to share our grief, to honor our dead, and to shine a light toward a brighter future,” said Talia Mizikovsky, the director of Jewish Student Life at Ramapo Hillel and one of several speakers at the vigil.

The memorial’s candles, held by 11 Ramapo students, reminded Mizikovsky of the upcoming Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

“We remember the desecration of our ancient temple, and the massacre of Jews for being Jewish, and we cannot help but feel that somehow today we are in a different version of the same story,” Mizikovsky said.

The president of the College’s student government association, third-year student Stephan Lally, opened the memorial to the 11 victims of the Saturday morning attack by praising the longtime solidarity of Jewish and black communities in the U.S.

“Growing up as an African-American, it hasn’t been lost on me what the Jewish community has done throughout our history,” Lally said.

Members of the local synagogue supported Lally’s church in the wake of the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina church shooting, in which nine black worshippers were murdered by white supremacist Dylann Roof.

“It was that love they brought that I want to share with you today,” said Lally as he pledged SGA support to those affected by the Pittsburgh attack.

Nicole Morgan Agard, the College’s chief equity and diversity officer, also spoke. She followed Lally in calling for community in the face of tragedy before ceding the podium to members of Ramapo Hillel, the on-campus Jewish student organization.

Fourth-year student and Hillel member Hadar Baron was scheduled to arrive in Squirrel Hill the morning of the attack, but a delay kept her in New Jersey. She heard of the shooting while preparing to drive to Pittsburgh.

“We could say today is a terrifying time to be a Jew, but truth is that it has always been a terrifying time to be a Jew,” Baron said.

“Anti-Semitism is alive and well in today’s world,” said third-year student Patricia Giudice, the vice president of Ramapo Hillel. “It’s getting hard to think of anywhere as safe anymore.”

The vigil concluded with the recitation of a mourner’s Kaddish by Ruth Engel, a third-year student and treasurer of Ramapo Hillel. Alyssa Rabinowitz, Hillel president and copy editor at the Ramapo News, delivered the final remarks. She thanked those in attendance for their support.

“The vigil showed that people really care,” Baron said afterward. “Even people that aren’t part of the Jewish community. The Ramapo community cares and that’s what was heartwarming to hear.”

President Mercer issued a campus-wide email condemning the Pittsburgh killings prior to Monday’s vigil. In it, he called for the eradication “of anti-Semitism and all forms of religious hatred.”

Dr. Michael Riff, the director of the College’s Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, read a prepared statement at a lecture following the vigil.

“At the root of Saturday’s tragedy is the disease of anti-Semitism that lurks beneath the surface and emerges in times of crisis, like the one that we are in now,” Riff said.

“Our struggle must continue.”