BY LILY REAVIS ’21
After an anti-Semitic shooter took the lives of 11 people in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, members of Mount Holyoke’s Jewish Student Union (JSU) turned to each other for communal support. The group decided to organize and host a candlelight vigil on the night of the attack, Oct. 27.
On Saturday morning when the shooting took place, three different congregations were holding services in the synagogue at the same time. Tree of Life, New Life and Dor Hadash congregations were all in the Tree of Life Synagogue when the attack began.
SJ Bernstein ’19, co-chair of the College’s JSU, has family in Squirrel Hill, the Pittsburgh neighborhood that is home to the Tree of Life Synagogue. “My grandparents were two of the co-founders of Dor Hadash,” they said.
Bernstein spoke to the pain that the Jewish community is facing in the wake of the shooting. “It’s been difficult for all Jewish students — all Jews — because this is the largest-scale assault on Jews in America in the history of the country,” they said.
On Saturday morning, Bernstein said that they slept in and woke up to messages and news articles about the shooting from peers at Mount Holyoke and family back home. “There’s another level of dealing with the reality that it wasn’t just my overall community that was attacked, but the reality that this was family friends who were attacked,” they said. “People who were there for me when my grandfather died are gone now.”
Bernstein’s grandmother — a member of the Dor Hadash Congregation — was not in the Tree of Life Synagogue when the shooting took place. Bernstein said that it was “lucky” their grandmother stayed home, as the Congregation has always been a large part of their family. “We knew people who were in the room,” they said. “We knew some of the victims.”
About 4.2 million American adults say that they are Jewish by religion, making up roughly 1.8 percent of the entire U.S. adult population, according to the Pew Research Center. “The vast majority of that two percent live in specific areas, places that are 30 [or] 40 percent Jewish,” Bernstein said. “Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, where this took place, is one of those areas.” They added, “Those are the areas where it’s supposed to be safe to be Jewish.”
JSU board members worked to host a vigil on Saturday night, the day of the attack. “It was really good that we were able to turn it around that fast,” Bernstein said. “It was also helpful for us, because it gave us something tangible to do.” They explained that if the JSU board had not spent Saturday planning the vigil together, they would have spent it watching news reports in hopes of gathering new information. Bernstein felt that the vigil was a healthier use of their time, and the decision to host it was as much for JSU board members as it was for the rest of the community.
“The [JSU] board spent the day pulling together a couple of prayers from here, a couple of prayers from there,” Bernstein said. “Our secretary reached out to the administration and emailed with [Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students Marcella Runell Hall] and [Vice President for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Kijua Sanders-McMurtry] about what the school’s response was going to be, what was going to be done for students, all of those things.”
JSU is hoping to work with the College’s administration to bring a counselor who specializes in Jewish issues to campus, according to Bernstein. They hope that they can find someone who is either Jewish or “familiar with how it feels to go through stuff like this, especially familiar with Holocaust trauma.”
Bernstein believes that over 85 people attended JSU’s vigil on Saturday night, which took place in the Eliot House. At the vigil itself, JSU members conducted the Havdalah Ritual. According to the Facebook event, the purpose of the vigil was “coming together as a community to mourn and support one another.”
“It was really heartening to see how many people showed up for the vigil,” Bernstein said. “Especially on ‘Halloweekend,’ when other people had other plans and put those aside to come and support the community.”
Since the shooting took place, Bernstein said that members of the College’s faculty and administration have been helpful and supportive. “[Runell Hall] was very supportive. [Sanders-McMurtry] is lovely,” they said. “I’ve had multiple professors reach out to me […] just to check in to see how I was doing.”
At the same time, they acknowledged how painful the shooting has been. “It’s also been really hard, just going on like everything’s normal,” they said. “[The shooting has been] so horrific and so traumatizing for the entire community that there’s just no word for it.”
JSU plans to continue hosting events for the community on campus. On Sunday, Oct. 28, they hosted “Bagel Brunch,” a recurring event that was pre-scheduled for Sunday. Bernstein said that the timing worked well for JSU in light of the shooting. “It was nice for us to come together as a community again,” they said.
Bernstein went on to explain that events put on by JSU attract differentsized crowds. Some, they said, may have 10 or 12 attendees, while others, such as Bagel Brunch, usually have about 40. “We have a very large email list,” Bernstein explained. “There are plenty of students who are Jewish and not on the email list, and there are plenty of people on the email list who are not Jewish. We are very happy to have everyone [in JSU].”
The JSU hopes to be a resource for Jewish students during this difficult time. “We’re just trying to be there for each other, support each other. Create space for people to talk and to realize that they’re not alone,” Bernstein said. “We’re all here to support [students] the best we can.”
Bernstein urged students who are struggling with the shooting to reach out for help from the College community and administration. They said that Runell Hall and Sanders-McMurtry are both helpful and supportive resources, as well as Amelia Ender, the College’s Jewish Chaplain.
“If students are having trouble getting work done, reach out to faculty. Reach out to the administration. People are being flexible and supportive,” Bernstein said. “Remember that there are resources.”