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After Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting, Seacoast Vigil Calls For Healing, Political Action

Annie Ropeik

Seacoast faith leaders and hundreds of residents came together for a vigil at a Portsmouth synagogue Monday night, after Saturday’s attack on Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh.

The shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue is being investigated as a hate crime. It was the deadliest attack on American Jews in U.S. history.

Monday’s interfaith service at Portsmouth's Temple Israel included Hebrew hymns that call for unity, strength, healing and endurance.

Audience members wept as the names of the 11 people killed in Pittsburgh were read. And clergy from a range of Seacoast churches spoke with their own condolences.

“We are coming together showing the world that evil does not win,” said Rev. Jeffrey McIlwain of Newington’s North Star AME Zion Church. “Whenever evil raises its head, we come together to let the world know that there is hope.”

Portsmouth police and local and state officials said they stand with New Hampshire’s Jewish community and will work to keep them and others safe. (Hear more on NHPR's The Exchange.)

“We cannot become numb. This is not the time to be resigned,” said the city’s deputy mayor Cliff Lazenby. “Be determined, and speak up … listen and have empathy. … We should marginalize hatred and anger by making it unwelcome.”

Melvin Prostkoff of Rhode Island’s Touro Synagogue, the oldest still-standing synagogue in the U.S., read aloud a letter that George Washington wrote to Touro’s congregation in 1790.

“Happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens,” the letter reads in part.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
Seacoast clergy and local officials link arms and sing "We Shall Overcome" on the bimah of Temple Israel.

It borrows language from a letter the synagogue’s warden initially sent to Washington. Prostkoff says together, they form an important doctrine on American religious freedom.

The service also included a Baha’i blessing, Episcopal prayers, quotes from the Quran, Talmud and Bible, and a song sung by Portsmouth Unitarian Rev. Lauren Smith: “We are sending you light to heal you, to hold you; we are sending you light to hold you in love.”  

The vigil’s audience joined hands and linked arms to sing “We Shall Overcome” and “How Beautiful Our Spacious Skies.”

But Temple Israel’s Acting Rabbi Ira Korinow said prayers for healing and calls for unity won’t help prevent future hate crimes and mass shootings without action by elected government leaders.

“As long as they refuse to seriously consider some very serious gun legislation, there will be more Gregory Bushes, Robert Bowers, and Cesar Sayocs,” he said, referring to the three suspects behind alleged hate crimes and acts of domestic terrorism that have all taken place within the past week. 

Some at the vigil said afterwards that they still feel hopeless and afraid in their own churches and temples. They said they feel their best hope is to vote in next week’s midterm elections for candidates who support stricter gun control policies.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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