On Tuesday night, a candlelit vigil glowed from the museum steps in honor of the lives of those murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last Saturday. In the nation’s most recent mass shooting, 11 people were lost, and each was remembered with a candle at the vigil.
“I think for the Jewish students, students of faith and other students there is really a feeling of connection to these people that were killed, to the vulnerability of going to synagogue on just a regular old Saturday,” said Rabbi Lisa Vinikoor, who works with Bowdoin Hillel. “There isn’t a political goal, it’s really just to sit with the emotions, and certainly with the first few days of any kind of mourning process there is usually shock … I think the goal of the vigil is publicly doing that.”
The vigil came together in just 24 hours. In the days following the shooting, Hillel presidents Miranda Miller ’19 and Zoe Aarons ’19 felt that the reverberations of Saturday’s events had not extended beyond Bowdoin’s small Jewish community.
“The vigil was in large part a response to the fact that many Jewish students said that many of their non-Jewish friends had not reached out to them and were not discussing it,” said Aarons. “We wanted to make sure that everyone on campus was thinking about it.”
“It also has a goal with doing some interpreting about how to maybe understand—I mean, it’s an event that can’t be understood in that it’s so horrific … it’s in the context of so many acts of violence, a very long history of anti-Semitism, violence and hate and racism in America,” said Vinikoor.
In addition to the 11 candles lit for the 11 lives lost at the Tree of Life, Bowdoin Hillel lit a twelfth candle to commemorate the lives of all those lost to hate crimes in America.
“We wanted it be a distinctly Jewish event, and we wanted to show people distinctly Jewish ways to mourn, but we did want to place this in a larger context of hate,” said Aarons.
Though the vigil was the largest and most public gathering of the week, Miller and Aarons have been working closely with Vinikoor since Saturday evening to organize smaller events and open up spaces for more informal conversation.
“I really do think of it, as ‘what’s on your heart?’” said Vinikoor. “Sometimes we go so quickly to ‘what do I think? Should I be feeling this way? Should I not?’ which is all good, but really [it’s important] just to create a space for students to slow down and ask ‘how does this sit with me?’ and that there isn’t a right or wrong about that.”
Since the events of Saturday, the doors of the Center for Multicultural Life at 30 College, have remained open. Miller and Aarons were adamant about making the house available for students this week as a space where they might do homework, check in with one another and, above all, come together as a community.
“I know that I personally felt like, ‘wow I have so much work to do but I really don’t want to be alone’ and I want to be with other Jewish people and with friends,” said Miller.
Vinikoor also offered office hours as a system of support to students. From 8 a.m. onward on Tuesday, she sat in 30 College for walk-in conversations.
A place to mourn certainly, but perhaps also a place to rebuild, this week 30 College has in many ways come to symbolize the very heart of the community’s healing process, a space which Aarons believes is essential in order to begin moving forward.
“I hope that there will be space not just for Jewish minorities but for all minorities—queer, trans, people of color, Jewish people—to have spaces to discuss each of their very important concerns,” said Aarons.
In an address to the community at Tuesday night’s vigil, Hillel board member Annie Rose ’20 called for unity among all student groups and all students when reeling from acts of targeted violence.
“I tell you this to show why most Jewish people strongly believe in open doors, open borders, open minds and open hearts. We do not tolerate anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, white nationalism and all other forms of discrimination and hate,” said Rose.
Her words rang poignantly both within and outside of the Bowdoin context. Two separate bias incidents have been reported at the College in the last month, with swastikas appearing in multiple public spaces on campus. Last Thursday, news broke of a failed shooting attempt at a black church in Kentucky. The suspect allegedly went on to kill two black men at a grocery store nearby.
“It’s not just something that’s affecting the Jewish community, but all types of minority communities across the country,” said Amber Rock ’19, who is the vice president of student government affairs and helped organize last Friday’s town hall in response to the swastikas.
“These are things that our president isn’t addressing correctly or taking seriously, and the rest of the country is given a green light to do whatever they want without thinking about the implications it has on other groups. Bowdoin isn’t immune to that, and we just need as a community to try to withstand that.”
With hates crimes affecting many minority communities in recent years, Vinikoor felt that the losses from the Tree of Life shooting would resonate with all students, even beyond those within Bowdoin’s Jewish community.
“I was thinking about my own grandfather who is no longer alive, but he was the kind of person that went to synagogue every Saturday, and he would have been there early because he was super dedicated,” said Vinikoor. “There are students who have people in their family like that of all faiths. They go to church early, or they get to the mosque early because they’re in charge of unlocking the door, and to think that those were the people that were murdered can’t be explained,” said Vinikoor.
Despite the grief felt across campus this week, Vinikoor stressed the importance of expansion, rather than seclusion, of community when confronting pain, returning to the image of the open door.
“Judaism stands for this idea of tzelem elohim, this idea that all people are created in the image of God and we will not stop working towards that,” said Vinikoor. “You know, this synagogue had their doors open and we’re going to keep our doors open, and keep working to bring about more love and more acceptance for Jews, for people of other faiths, [and] for people of no faith in our country. And that that’s something we can be working on here at Bowdoin, even if we’re not in Pittsburgh.”