Community gathers in unity, honors politicians, as hostage nightmare continues
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Israel at war100 days in captivity

Community gathers in unity, honors politicians, as hostage nightmare continues

“This is a fight of our generation. We must stand united and proud with Israel.” — Julie Paris

Vigil organizers Julie Paris and David Dvir stand with Sen. John Fetterman at a vigil marking 100 days in captivity for the hostages held in Gaza (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Vigil organizers Julie Paris and David Dvir stand with Sen. John Fetterman at a vigil marking 100 days in captivity for the hostages held in Gaza (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

The chant “Bring them home!” echoed over and over again Sunday morning as about 250 community members — a standing-room-only crowd — packed into the Jewish Community Center of Squirrel Hill’s Levinson Hall for a solidarity gathering marking the 100th day of captivity for the remaining 132 hostages held by Hamas.

On Oct. 7 — “Black Shabbat,” to Israelis — thousands of terrorists invaded Israel, brutally murdered 1,200 people and hauled 240 others off to Gazan tunnels. The IDF believes 25 of those hostages are dead. About 110 were released, many of whom have testified about the inhumane conditions imposed by the terrorists on their captives.

A dedicated team of local community members, led by Squirrel Hill businessman David Dvir and Julie Paris, the Mid-Atlantic regional director of StandWithUS, have organized vigils every Sunday to remember and support the hostages. The rallies are typically held on the corner of Murray Avenue and Darlington Road in Squirrel Hill and draw crowds of 60 to 100 people or more. Various speakers share their stories, prayers and their connections to the people and the land of Israel.

The gatherings always conclude with the singing of “Hatikvah” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

About 250 community members gathered at the JCC in Squirrel Hill to mark 100 days of captivity for the hostages held by Hamas (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Sunday’s vigil — held indoors courtesy of the JCC and with support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh — commenced with an emotional introduction by Paris as she described the agony of the Jewish people since Oct. 7 and implored the community to remain involved.

“We are a people in limbo,” she said. “As long as the hostages remain inside Gaza and Israel fights an existential threat, we cannot stop our activism and our work. We must educate ourselves, stand up for ourselves and take action. It is our duty and our responsibility to the hostages and all of the generations of Jews who fought their own battle for survival before us, and for our own children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“This is a fight of our generation,” she continued. “We must stand united and proud with Israel.”

Edgewood Councilmember Bhavini Patel at a vigil in support of the hostages, Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, Jan. 14, 2024 (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Paris thanked the politicians present at the vigil and standing in solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people: U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, Rep. Chris Deluzio, Edgewood Borough Councilmember Bhavini Patel (who is challenging Rep. Summer Lee in the District 12 race for Congress), Pennsylvania state Rep. Abigail Salisbury, District 5 City Councilmember Barb Warwick, City Controller Rachael Heisler and a representative from U.S. Senator Bob Casey’s office. She also acknowledged state Rep. Dan Frankel, who “has been a champion for our cause,” but was unable to make the vigil.

“There are leaders with such a clear moral compass, with such bravery, honor, understanding and guts that they go down in the history books and are forever remembered as heroes,” Paris said. “I can say with confidence that the leader today is our very own Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman.”

As Fetterman took the podium, the audience erupted into cheers and resounding applause.

Fetterman has been an outspoken supporter of Israel since Hamas initiated the latest war.

“I don’t ever need to be thanked for doing my job,” Fetterman told the crowd. “And my job — and I believe it is the way it should be — is standing on the side of Israel.”

He recounted meeting on four separate occasions with families of the hostages and the victims of the Oct. 7 massacre, remarking on their “courage” and “strength.”

“It was difficult for me to maintain my composure,” the senator said. “We need to bring them home now! There’s no talking about peace until we bring them home now!”

Fetterman did not mince words when describing viewing the footage of the massacre, captured on bodycams worn by the terrorists.

“I’ve seen that awful footage,” he said. “You want to know how you can see this these kinds of atrocities? They filmed it! They filmed it. Where does that evil come from? Who does that? I can never stand on any other side than on the right side of this. … I just want everybody to know that my votes are always going to be on this side. And I want everybody to understand that no matter where it goes, I’m always going to make sure that we deliver the aid that Israel needs in order to support it.”

Fetterman reiterated his unequivocal support for the Jewish state in an interview with the Chronicle following the vigil.

“We need to make a very strong statement that we’re going to stand with Israel, that we’re on the right side of history, we’re on the right side of peace and on the right side of human rights,” he said. “I never understand how anybody can think that we can have peace until Hamas is destroyed.”

Brian Eglash, the Federation’s senior vice president and chief development officer, who recently returned from a mission to Israel, emphasized the necessity of financial support for the Jewish state during this “historical moment.” Pittsburgh, he said, was making an impact: So far, through the Federation’s emergency fund, local donors have contributed more than $7.5 million.

Several other speakers, including Rabbi Daniel Yolkut of Congregation Poale Zedeck, the four young Israeli shinshimim who are in Pittsburgh for the year, and Squirrel Hill resident Lauren Baldel shared stories about some of the hostages still held by Hamas, painting a vivid picture of the lives that the terrorists have disrupted and shattered.

Violinist Lina Horwitz and pianist David Morgenstern at the Jan. 14 vigil in support of the hostages
Violinist Lina Horwitz and pianist David Morgenstern filled the room with traditional Jewish music, including a moving rendition of “Arum Dem Fayer” (“Around the Firelight”), a Yiddish folksong that was popular in the Polish ghettos of the 1930s.

The also musicians accompanied the community in the singing of “Hatikvah” — “the hope.”

Volunteers moved through the crowd, distributing information on how to obtain a mail-in ballot, as this year’s primary election will be held on the first day of Passover. The importance of electing politicians who stand with Israel was emphasized throughout the afternoon.

The U.S. must continue to support the Jewish state and work toward the release of the hostages, Deluzio, who represents District 17, told the Chronicle following the program.

“We’re looking at 100 days of captivity for these folks who never should have been taken by Hamas,” he said. “I think it should be very easy to say these folks should come home and that we support our friends and Israel’s right to exist as a democracy, and a Jewish democracy.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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