Interfaith Vigil Brings Community Together For Understanding, Peace And Hope

By Cheryl Conway


Members of the community gathered earlier this month to reaffirm the spirit of peace, unity and love.

Organized by a Mt. Olive resident along with a local pastor, the interfaith vigil was held Thursday, Nov. 1, at 7 p.m. at Flanders Park. More than 80 people from greater Mt. Olive and interfaith voices gathered to share their grief from the shocking recent shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

It included a “candlelight vigil for peace, unity and love” to “remember and honor the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue; stand together in solidarity in mourning, healing, and hope,” as stated in the program.

“The vigil was an opportunity for people in our community to gather in grief and love,” explains Pastor Serena Rice of Abiding Peace Lutheran Church in Budd Lake. “To have a chance to share our grief at the shootings in Pittsburgh and at the violence that exists in our society, but to also affirm our hope and commitment that Mt. Olive will not foster hatred, division or violence. The focus of the vigil, as the name indicates, was “peace, unity, and love.”

The event was initiated by resident Shelly Morningstar. She and Rice collaborated in arranging the logistics and gathering participation and input from local clergy and community members, explains Rice.

“There was a request from the community to have an opportunity for this vigil, so we responded,” explains Rice.

Members of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faith communities, as well as the greater Mt. Olive community gathered to listen to multiple voices from various faiths, many of whom are involved with the Mt. Olive Clergy Association. 

“The gathering was a wonderful time of coming together,” says Rice. “It was truly interfaith and community-building, and it affirmed the spirit of this community and its commitment to inclusion a working together for peace.”

Rice says “I ended the night with a call to “witness” to the value of the lives lost and to our commitment to peace and to “change” – which comes from the will of the community.”

It is not often that the interfaith group gets together, but sometimes it is necessary especially after one that is considered among the deadliest massacres against a Jewish community in the United States, as deemed by the Anti-Defamation League.

As reported in the “New York Times,” the 46-year old assailant, Robert D. Bowers, entered the Tree of Life Synagogue Saturday morning, Oct. 27, with an armed AR-15-style assault rifle and at least three handguns, shouting anti-Semitic slurs, and opened fire killing at least 11 congregants and wounding four police officers and two others, the authorities said.

Bowers eventually surrendered and was faced with 29 charges in a rampage that left the historic Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill and the rest of the nation stunned.

“This was the first time this particular group has cooperated on an effort, but many of the speakers are part of the Mt. Olive Clergy Association, which meets together monthly and collaborates on an annual Thanksgiving Service and on care for people in the community facing hardship,” explains Rice. Also participating at the event were the three congregations involved in a new Mt. Olive Interfaith Alliance: Abiding Peace Lutheran Church, United Presbyterian Church, and Islamic Society of North Jersey. “This new alliance has begun to work on relationship-building and charitable efforts, and hopes to host some community dialogues in the coming year.”

Concludes Rice, “I believe faith is an important resource when our community, or our nation, is confronted by violence, division, and bigotry. Faith – all of the major faiths – draw us back to what we believe about the value of every human life, and call us to witness to and work for hope and peace. Across different traditions, we can work together on building a stronger community when we recognize our commonality and commit to support each other, rather than fearing those who are different.”

One of the voices heard at the vigil was Rabbi Yaacov Shusterman of the Chabad Jewish Center in Mt. Olive.

“Our hearts are shattered by the horrific attack on our brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh,” Shusterman shares his excerpts from the vigil. “We mourn the 11 holy souls who were so cruelly torn from our midst, and pray to God to provide the strength and comfort to the still grieving families.  Their unfathomable grief is shared by the entire Jewish people and all people worldwide.

“The haunting words, “All Jews must die” have been heard before- In France in 1147, Morocco 1465, in Spain in 1492, Ukraine in 1648, Chevron in 1929, Germany in 1939, Poland in 1940, 2000 in the Holy Land, Toulouse in 2012,” he shares.

“My friends, this time was different,” says Shusterman. “This time, it was Pittsburgh, Pa., in the U.S.A. This hits close to home. An attack on one Jew is an attack on every Jew.  It could’ve been me. An attack on an American is an attack on every American. It could’ve been any one of us. An attack on one person is an attack on all of humanity.

“This has demonstrated that we are one family,” says Shusterman.

“Our response as Jews is to revive our centers, to fill them with Jewish pride and vitality, with hope, and to never cower in fear,” he says. “Today, more than ever, we must increase in acts of goodness and kindness.  Even if it’s one positive action, one word, or even one thought,” Maimonides, the great medieval scholar writes, “it has an impact on the entire world.”

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