Hundreds gather in support of Israel at Oakland vigil
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Hundreds gather in support of Israel at Oakland vigil

After personal connections to war shared, attendees told to engage local politicians: 'It is really important for you to continue to stand up for Israel, even when it gets hard'

Pittsburgh's four teen shinshinim speak during the Oct. 19 program at Flagstaff Hill. Photo by Adam Reinherz
Pittsburgh's four teen shinshinim speak during the Oct. 19 program at Flagstaff Hill. Photo by Adam Reinherz

Elected officials, Jewish professionals, faith leaders and other community members gathered in support of Israel at an Oct. 19 vigil in Schenley Park in Oakland.

Hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and co-sponsored by more than 25 local groups, the event included speeches, songs and prayers.

Lt. Gov. Austin Davis called the program at Flagstaff Hill a chance “for folks from every faith community to come together and express our sorrow for the victims in Israel, as well as our support for our Jewish brothers and sisters.”

“I am proud to lend my voice and show my support for the commonwealth’s Jewish community now in this moment of crisis, grief and mourning, and always, as fellow Pennsylvanians,” he added.

Speaking with the Chronicle following the program, Davis elaborated on the role of public officials during times of crisis.

“I think it’s critical, that in a moment of pain, that all communities come together to support one another because it’s the Jewish community today, it may be the Christian community tomorrow, and as elected officials, we have a responsibility to speak for everyone,” he said.

Several other politicians attended, including State Rep. Dan Frankel, Allegheny County District Attorney Steve Zappala and Allegheny County Controller Corey O’Connor.

Federation President and CEO Jeffrey Finkelstein urged community members to not only thank “our elected officials,” but continue discussing Israel with them.

“Engage them on this issue,” Finkelstein said. “Stay informed and hold those who are seeking to spread misinformation accountable. It is really important for you to continue to stand up for Israel, even when it gets hard.”

Congregation Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Seth Adelson recites the Mourner’s Kaddish during an Oct. 19 vigil for Israel. Photo by Adam Reinherz

Throughout the evening, the crowd — Pittsburgh Police estimated attendance to be about 500 — heard passionate cries for support.

Dr. Laurie Wasser-Klitsner, an American-Israeli ophthalmologist who relocated to Pittsburgh last year for a postdoctoral fellowship at UPMC, said her husband, brothers, brothers-in-law and cousins have all returned to the Israel Defense Forces.

Our entire family has been drafted,” she said.

The situation is unimaginable, Wasser-Klitsner continued.

“Hamas kidnapped 200 civilians, among them babies, women and the elderly, and they have taken them into Gaza,” she said. “It is inconceivable that we find  ourselves having to defend the reality of the vicious attacks, particularly because they were livestreamed by the Hamas terrorists in real time for the world to see.

“It is incomprehensible that members of the U.S. academic community are defending a deliberate attack on innocent civilians,” Wasser-Klitsner continued. “There is no moral equivalency here. There is only one acceptable outcome. Universities must condemn Hamas and denounce these heinous acts of terror unequivocally.”

Rev. Natalie Hall, rector at The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Squirrel Hill, described the grief and fear experienced by “Jewish friends and neighbors.”

“After the largest organized pogrom on the Jewish people since the Holocaust, there has been silence. Sure, there have been some statements released,” she said. “Yet many seem incapable of acknowledging that the deadly massacre of Jewish civilians was consummately wrong.”

Dan Gilman, chief of staff and senior advisor to Duquesne University President Ken Gormley and former chief of staff to Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto, stressed the need for “moral clarity.”

“As we gather together to mourn the loss of innocent lives and pray for those being held hostage, let us all come together to use this moment for clear moral clarity in our community,” he said. “Let us be unequivocal. Let us be unrelenting. Let us be unrestrained and let us be unwavering in our recognition that Israel has a right to exist [and] in our recognition that Hamas is a terrorist organization.”

Pittsburgh’s Teenage Israeli emissaries described their shock upon learning of the war and the difficulty of being so far from home.

“All four of us have siblings in the army. Let that sink,” one said.

Throughout the program, clergy gave voice to familiar liturgy and songs.

Chabad of Greenfield’s Rabbi Yitzi Goldwasser read a chapter of Psalms before saying a prayer for the captives. Former Senior Jewish Educator at Hillel JUC Cantor Stefanie Greene and Rodef Shalom Congregation’s Cantor Toby Glaser chanted Debbie Friedman’s “Mi Shebeirach.” Congregation Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Seth Adelson recited the Mourner’s Kaddish and El Maleh Rachamim. Glaser closed the event with “Hatikvah.”

Laura Cherner, director of Federation’s Community Relations Council, told the Chronicle the program was an opportunity to “gather together as a community, to mourn the innocent lives of those killed and pray for those who remain in captivity.”

Ayelet Setbon, a Netanya resident and Israeli emissary, said she was moved by the event.

“I feel like I’m in a community that cares,” she said.

Zoe Klitsner, 10, agreed and said she was impressed by the diversity of attendees.

“I thought that everybody gathering together was very, very special,” she said.

Hopefully, that spirit of unity can carry forward, Naomi Rosenthal, 14, told the Chronicle.

To continue the camaraderie, in conjunction with Friendship Circle and NCSY, Rosenthal is organizing a “teen-wide unity Havdalah event,” this Saturday night.

The Oct. 21 program will include “a musical Havdalah, hot cocoa bar and unified song,” she said.

Rosenthal’s sister, Ayala Rosenthal, 22, credited the work of older generations as inspiration for the teen event.

“What we’re seeing throughout this entire week is that people from every congregation, every community, and from all corners of Pittsburgh are coming together,” she said. “It hasn’t happened yet for the teen group specifically,” she said.

Bringing young adults together now, “in solidarity and with hope for our brothers and sisters in Israel,” is essential, Ayala Rosenthal continued. “We know that young people are the next generation of leaders.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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