PITTSBURGH (Reuters) - The rabbis of the Pittsburgh synagogue where a gunman massacred 11 worshipers during Sabbath prayers urged mourners at an interfaith memorial service on Sunday to embrace tolerance and unity, while the mayor vowed to “defeat hate with love.”
Themes of inclusion and compassion dominated the speeches delivered to an overflow crowd of some 2,500 at the University of Pittsburgh’s Soldiers and Sailors Hall, as speakers decried the rise of toxic political discourse widely seen as creating an atmosphere conducive to violence.
Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers elicited shouts of “vote” from the audience as he called on political leaders, starting with “those in the room,” to help put an end to hate speech.
“My words are not intended as political,” he said from the stage. “My mother always taught me that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it.”
The “Stronger Together” service opened with a performance by a Baptist gospel choir and included remarks by Christian and Muslim clergy, but it was largely led by Meyers and two fellow rabbis representing the three Jewish congregations who used the synagogue targeted in Saturday’s carnage.
“What happened yesterday will not break us. It will not ruin us. We will continue to thrive and sing and worship and learn together and continue our historic legacy in the city with the friendliest people that I know,” said Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, choking back tears.
Three members of his congregation were among those killed when a man armed with an assault rifle and three handguns on Saturday stormed the Tree of Life temple in the city’s heavily Jewish Squirrel Hill neighbourhood yelling “All Jews must die” as he opened fire on worshipers.
In addition to the 11 mostly elderly victims who were killed, six people, including four police officers, were wounded before the suspect was arrested. Two of the surviving victims remained hospitalized in critical condition.
The massacre marked the deadliest attack ever on America’s Jewish community, according to the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Robert Bowers, 46, who has a history of posting anti-Semitic messages online, has been charged under federal hate crime statutes and could face the death penalty if convicted.
“This is the darkest hour in our city’s history,” Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto declared during Sunday’s service.
“But here’s another thing about Pittsburgh. We are resilient. We will work together as one. We will defeat hate with love. We will be a city of compassion and we will be welcoming to all people,” he said to cheers.
The names of the dead were released hours earlier. They included David Rosenthal, 54; his brother Cecil Rosenthal, 59; Sylvan Simon, 86, and his wife Bernice Simon, 84; Joyce Fienberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; Daniel Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 88; and Irving Younger, 69. The eldest victim was Rose Mallinger, 97.
Rabinowitz was a family physician who initially escaped the attack only to be killed when he returned to render aid to the wounded, according to a Wall Street Journal op-ed column by Pittsburgh carpet salesman Lou Weiss, who knew five victims personally.
Five of the dead lived in Squirrel Hill, a quiet, leafy district with a large Jewish population. The community also was home to the late Fred Rogers, whose long-running children’s television show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood” featured lessons on friendship and kindness.
The remaining victims were from other parts of Pittsburgh, the second-largest city in Pennsylvania after Philadelphia.
The mass shooting sparked security alerts at houses of worship around the country and condemnation from politicians and religious leaders.
Some complained that the confrontational, nationalistic rhetoric of U.S. President Donald Trump has encouraged right-wing extremists and fed a surge in activity by hate groups.
Trump, who quickly branded Saturday’s shooting an act of pure evil and called on Americans to rise above hatred, was already facing similar criticism ahead of Nov. 6 congressional elections following pipe bombs mailed last week to some of his most prominent critics. The targets, mostly Democrats, included former U.S. President Barack Obama.
“Honestly I think this president’s whole modus operandi is to divide us. He gets up in the morning with new and inventive ways to divide us,” U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who is Jewish, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” broadcast on Sunday.
Trump told reporters the killings might have been prevented if there had been an armed guard. Synagogue officials said police would only normally have been present for security on high holidays.
The mayor said on Sunday that keeping guns out of the hands of irrational people was a better way to prevent violence.
FBI Special Agent Robert Jones told a news conference he did not know why Bowers had targeted the Tree of Life synagogue.
Authorities believe he entered the synagogue, opened fire on worshipers and was fleeing when he encountered a police officer, Jones said. The two exchanged gunfire, he said, and Bowers reentered the building before a police tactical squad arrived.
Bowers surrendered and was taken to a hospital where he was listed in fair condition with multiple gunshot wounds.
Federal prosecutors charged Bowers late on Saturday with 29 criminal counts including violating U.S. civil rights laws.
Bowers’ virulent anti-Semitic views were evident in prolific online postings. In one early on Saturday, he wrote that a Jewish refugee group, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
He is due to make his first court appearance on Monday afternoon before a federal judge in Pittsburgh.
Additional reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Doina Chiacu and Susan Cornwell in Washington, and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing by Meredith Mazzilli in New York and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Daniel Wallis, David Gregorio and Cynthia Osterman