‘Tremendous’ response supports vigil at UK Jewish Student Center

Senior social work majors Katie Marcum (left), Jordan Gennuso and Makayla Lindsey light candles during the vigil held at the Jewish student center on UK’s campus in Lexington, Kentucky on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. The vigil was held in solidarity and remembrance of the victims of the reportedly anti-semitic shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Saturday. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

Rick Childress

Close to 100 members of the local community piled onto the front lawn and onto the porch of the UK Jewish Student Center for a vigil on Monday night in response to the deadly shooting of 11 congregants of a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Rabbi Shlomo Litvin, who has family, has gone to school in, has worked in, and still has several friends in Pittsburgh, told reporters Monday that he visited the Tree of Life Synagogue, the location of the shooting, several times during his time there.

“A very small amount of light dispels a lot of darkness,” Rabbi Litvin said to the gathering of people, reporters and police at the Jewish Student Center located just off campus on Columbia Ave. “Each one of us has the capacity, has the power to be that light.”

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Robert Bowers, a local man who reportedly posted anti-Semitic comments to social media in the days leading up to the shooting, is accused of killing 11 and wounding six people— with police officers as four of the wounded. 

Rabbi Litvin said that last Saturday, a Sabbath day and the day of the shooting, a student came into their service at 10 a.m. and asked him if he’d “heard about the shooting in a synagogue in Squirrel Hill?”

Religous Jews can’t use electricity from sunset Friday til sundown Saturday, Rabbi Litvin explained, so he was unable to check his phone or computer to see what had happened in the shooting. He said he has family in Squirrel Hill, but had to wait the whole day to check up on them.

“Saturday morning at 10 a.m., my grandmother is in a synagogue in Squirrel Hill, my uncle is at a synagogue at Squirrel Hill, there’s a synagogue that I used to help lead, a synagogue that my grandfather helped lead for 30 years,” Rabbi Litvin said. “I couldn’t go Google it or check my phone. Between 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. when Sabbath ended, I sat, I read Psalms, I prayed but I had no idea how bad it was, and what synagogue it was, who I knew that was there, etcetera.”

Finally Saturday night he “hesistantly” turned on his phone to read the news.

“It’s a place I know well, I used to ride by it on my bike on the way to the library,” he said of the Tree of Life Synagogue and the Squirrel Hill community. “I used to stop there every Friday afternoon and drop off a pamphlet, words of encouragement and it’s my community, it’s a community that I still have a lot of friends in and have a deep amount of love for.”

On his phone he also found a pile of messages from local community leaders, the police and students all asking, “What do we do?”

After speaking with the president of the Jewish Student Center, Rabbi Litvin reached out to the Hillel— another Jewish student group— and told several student groups and media organizations of the vigil and the response was “absolutely tremendous.”

“‘How we can be there? How can we help? We want to be there for you,’ Rabbi Litvin said many in the community said. 

Rabbi Litvin said the vigil does a couple of things. First, it helps alleviate fear, anxiety and anger amongst local Jewish students. Second, it’s a place where everyone else in the community can say that anti-Semitism and hate in general “just isn’t me, it’s not what I believe. It gives an opportunity to do that— to stand up and be counted.”

Rabbi Litvin began the vigil with a prayer and invited those in attendance to step up onto the porch of the Jewish Student Center and light a candle in remembrance of the victims.

After the candle lighting, he invited an ethnically and religiously diverse group of people onto the porch and said they were pillars of this community. The vigil was closed with a prayer read in Hebrew by Abigail Rebenstock, a board member of the Jewish Student Center and a junior at UK.

“I didn’t expect anything less,” Rebenstock said of the crowd that gathered for the vigil. “Everyone here is from more than one faith, and that’s just what the Lexington community has felt like to me— welcoming to everyone.”

Alex Rosenzweig, a member of Hillel and a mechanical engineering junior, said that he finds it encouraging that the community can join in solidarity for issues like the shooting, so that “what happened in the past” can’t be repeated.

“I hope that everyone can open there eyes and have a positive outlook,” Rosenzweig said. “And hopefully spread the word that we’ll still be here regardless of what happens.”

Dylan Byrum, the Student Government Association’s Senate President, said that he attended the vigil because he stood with the UK students involved and all those in attendance.

“We’re all here for one reason, and that’s to better our lives and ourselves and without supporting one another, I don’t see another way to do that,” Byrum said. “It was really great coming out and seeing the overwhelming support of the Wildcat as well as the extended community.”

There was a heavy police presence at vigil as UK and Lexington police cruisers were parked throughout the streets surrounding the Jewish Student Center, which is located on Columbia Avenue. Ronnie Bastin, a Lexington mayoral candidate, and Lexington Police Chief Lawrence Weathers were also in attendance. 

UK’s Jewish Student Center has been the target of local anti-Semitic activities in the past, and it’s not the first time that the local community responded positively.

In January, the sign in front of the Jewish Student Center was reportedly vandalized by six individuals who yelled “Heil Hitler” and “Get the Jews, kill the Jews,” as they ripped the sign from its supports.  

To demonstrate that “hate can never beat love” Rabbi Litvin and his daughter rode the vandalized sign down a snowy hill in front of William T. Young Library in the presence of 60 or 70 sledders. Following that, he hosted a gathering of members of the Lexington community  to stand in solidarity with the center.