As the sun set over the Susquehanna River this evening, more than 200 people at the Harrisburg Jewish Community Center mourned the lives lost in a weekend shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, where a gunman killed 11 congregants in what federal prosecutors are calling a hate crime.
The vigil was held two days after a 46-year old gunman burst into the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where he reportedly shouted anti-Semitic rhetoric before shooting congregants at Shabbat services. Eleven of the victims perished, and another six were wounded, including four police officers.
In the days since the event, communities across the country have held vigils in solidarity with the Jewish community in Pittsburgh. A ceremony in Squirrel Hill on Sunday night drew thousands of attendees, according to reports.
Gov. Tom Wolf was scheduled to attend a vigil for the victims in York on Monday. On Thursday, Harrisburg mayor Eric Papenfuse’s Interfaith Advisory Council will hold a memorial service at 5:30 p.m. at the Pine Street Presbyterian Church.
Monday’s impromptu vigil was organized by Abby Smith, a member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg, and employees of the Jewish Community Center, who decided this afternoon to hold a public event. They publicized it on social media and by word of mouth.
The candlelight vigil was held in a field outside the Jewish Community Center, located on Front Street near Susquehanna Township. Two officers from the Harrisburg Police Bureau provided security from the back of the crowd.
JCC employee Andrea Weikart said the turnout far surpassed their expectations.
“It’s overwhelming to see this support from the community,” Weikart said.
Smith opened the ceremony with a moment of silence and then a prayer for the 11 victims. Rev. Russell Goodman of the Riverside United Methodist Church also offered a benediction, before Rabbi Eric Cytryn, leader of Beth El Temple, led the audience in Hebrew hymns and prayers.
Harrisburg resident Allen Fernandez, who is a Christian, attended the event to show support for the Jewish community.
“They’re hurting from a tragedy that no religious group should ever experience,” Fernandez said. “The Jewish community here has helped a lot of people I care about, and this is a moment to stand in solidarity and mourning with them.”
Fernandez said the vigil also offered an opportunity to reflect on the seemingly endless episodes of gun violence in the country.
“We’ve had shootings in schools, synagogues, churches, grocery stores – is there a place in this country where I won’t get shot?” Fernandez said. “Events like this bring me back from feeling numb about them.”
Federal prosecutors are investigating the Pittsburgh shooting as a hate crime. The alleged shooter, Robert Bowers, appeared in federal court today, where he faced 29 civil and criminal charges, including 11 counts of obstruction of exercise of religious belief resulting in death.
State prosecutors have also charged Bowers with 11 counts of homicide and six counts of attempted homicide.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in Pittsburgh announced on Sunday it would seek the federal death penalty for Bowers if he is convicted.