SF Hillel and other Jewish student organizations shared personal anecdotes on Monday, Nov. 5 during a vigil at Malcolm X Plaza held for the 11 worshippers murdered in an anti-Semitic shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Oct. 27.
One student at the gathering shared her connection to one of the shooting victims, Melvin Wax.
“He was said to have loved three things in his life, which were his grandson, Judaism and the Pittsburgh Pirates,” said Emily Simmons, student experience architect for SF Hillel. “He would go to the synagogue every single week, got there early, made sure people were welcomed and had their space.”
The community members gathered at the vigil, lit a candle for each victim, then passed out ribbons to represent Kriah, in the tradition of rending garments to represent the tear in your heart when losing a loved one.
“It’s usually for close family members,” said Brooke Smallson, vigil organizer. “You’re symbolically tearing a piece of clothing because even if you were to sew it back, it would never be quite the same, which is a really good example of what loss is like.”
Smallson organized the vigil over just one weekend with the support from the Hillel staff.
SF State Vice President of Student Affairs Luoluo Hong said the worse attack on Jewish people in U.S. history raised awareness to the blatant anti-Semitism, hate and oppression that still exists today.
Some students at the vigil shared their own anxiety over Pittsburgh and other anti-Semitic acts that hit closer to home.
“A few days later [after the Pittsburgh shooting] my synagogue in Orange County was vandalized,” said Ben Lieberman, who is majoring in Jewish studies. “My dad’s a security guard there too, which also scares me a little bit. I think the initial attack, plus the vandalism, made this a little more personal for me.”
As a result of these violent acts toward the Jewish community, SF State students have stepped up to take action. Students Eli Burg and Lex De La Herran co-founded the new organization, the American Student Jewish Activist.
The organization kick starts with a meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 7 in the Cesar Chavez Student Center from 8-9 p.m.
“It was shocking and jarring hearing what happened in Pittsburgh, yet not at all surprising,” Burg said. “The Jewish high holidays are generally in September, October, and for years growing up at the synagogue, there was always security guards. Every time you hear of acts of anti-Semitism, security gets tighter and tighter and it’s something that’s run through my head, ‘What if someone came in with a gun?’”
Professor of Jewish studies Fred Astren said he was disappointed to see little representation from other student groups. He said the lack of turnout reflects a lack of awareness of violent acts against Jewish people.
“It seems to me that if people understood what anti-Semitism is and what really happened there that they would understand that this affects all the different communities that are represented on our campus,” Astren said.
De La Herran said one of the main reasons for creating the American Student Jewish Activist is to build coalitions with other student groups.
“I think that all of us need to get together in this really dark time,” he said. “It’s important that we share a message of unity, solidarity and strength because we need to really bring together our whole community, especially at SF State.”
Toward the end of the vigil, there was a moment of silence for all of the victims and chalk was provided for people to write supportive messages or prayers for solidarity. Yolanda Gamboa, interim assistant director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), offered counseling resources for those coping with recent tragedies.