After a fatal shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue last weekend, student leaders in GW Hillel knew it was in their hands to help students find solace on campus.
Members of GW Hillel said that after a man walked into the Tree of Life synagogue and killed 11 people on Oct. 27, leaders in the organization offered support to students throughout last week, starting with a vigil last Monday and open hours in the Hillel townhouse throughout the week for students to walk in and talk with staff. Student leaders said they feel a responsibility to provide GW’s Jewish community with the support and mental health resources they need after the tragedy.
“Whether you’re Jewish or not Jewish, it was definitely a shocking event,” Ana Levy, a fellow for GW Hillel, said. “I think the more important thing is that the GW community is really strong, and the most uplifting thing for me was to see students support each other throughout the week.”
After Monday’s vigil, student leaders said they opened the Hillel townhouse, located at 2101 F St. NW, for students to talk with staff and fellow students. Students also focused their “Tea Time Tuesday,” a weekly discussion event for Jewish members of the LGBTQ community, on talking through the aftermath of the shooting.
University President Thomas LeBlanc issued a statement Monday condemning the attack on the Jewish community.
Twelve students joined Rabbi Dan Epstein, the senior Jewish educator at GW Hillel, on a trip to Pittsburgh where they visited the synagogue where the shooting occurred and attended funerals for two of the victims. Students ended the week holding a moment of silence during their weekly Shabbat dinner Friday and hosting a discussion on anti-Semitism during Shabbat lunch Saturday.
Zachary Bernstein, Hillel’s holiday chair who traveled to Pittsburgh Tuesday, said visiting the synagogue in the aftermath of the shooting was “one of the hardest days” of his life. He said the trip was a way for Jewish students to “stand together in the face of tragedy” and show support as a united Jewish community.
“What was very emotional was when we went to the synagogue where it actually happened, and there were policemen and barricades with reporters behind them across the street and there were 100 or so people from all across the country in the middle of the street singing songs and melodies and psalms and crying together,” he said. “That was really, really emotional and difficult.”
Outside GW’s Hillel chapter, the international Hillel organization began holding workshops for campus leaders at university chapters, like the University of Pittsburgh, to learn how to respond to safety threats. GW Hillel student leaders said the international organization has not reached out to them to host workshops.
Bernstein added that given his role planning Hillel events, he struggled to determine how to tone down the typically “upbeat and hyper” mood of Shabbat dinner and decided to hold a moment of silence.
“My job is to keep running services like normal and for people who say my job now is to go to services and show that the Jewish people go on – my job is to create that space,” Bernstein said.
Emily Goldberg, Hillel’s programming chair, said moving forward, she wants to hold educational sessions for students to understand anti-Semitism and discuss the aftermath of the shooting with speakers from organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization that educates people about anti-Semitism, or through roundtable discussions with students in the Hillel townhouse.
“It’s really important to understand all sides of what occurred and discuss to make sure people understand what happened,” Goldberg said. “The important thing is to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself, is to make sure people know, and not only for Jewish students, for anyone on campus to be able to understand this.”
Since the shooting, Goldberg said student leaders on the Hillel executive board have not yet held a formal meeting because “people are still really upset,” and they want to wait until students have had time to grieve before taking any further steps.
“We’re just trying to understand that individually, and in the coming week, we’re hoping to have times where people can gather in the townhouse,” she said.