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Vigil held in North York to honour victims of Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

Last Updated Oct 29, 2018 at 10:47 pm EDT

A vigil was held in North York on Monday night to honour the victims of a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Toronto’s Mel Lastman Square was crowded with members of the Jewish community who gripped candles as they sang traditional songs “Lo Yisa Goy” and “Kol Haolam Kulo,” and later stood for a moment of silence.

Among those gathered were 20 family members of Joyce Fienberg, who was among the 11 people who were killed on Saturday when a gunman opened fire on worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

Fienberg’s cousin Judy Winberg led the crowd with a prayer that began with “grant us peace, your most precious gift.”

It was enough to bring Rachel Cohen to tears and hug her seven-year-old son, standing beside her, a little tighter.

“I can’t even imagine what that family has been feeling since they lost their loved one in Pittsburgh,” she said. “I’ve just been thinking that can happen here and we need to stand strong and support each other.”

She said she’d be taking her son to one of the solidarity Shabbat events planned for synagogues across the city this weekend.

Sara Lefton, the vice-president of philanthropy at vigil organizer the United Jewish Appeal Federation, said amid tragedy, events like the solidarity Shabbat and the vigil are crucial because those killed in Pittsburgh were “singled out for being Jewish.”

“It’s so important at a time like this for the broader community to come together and recognize that we have to fight back against hate and stand together at a time of difficulty like this.”

Over the weekend, vigils and rallies were organized in a number of Canadian cities, including Montreal, Ottawa, Halifax and Vancouver.

In Ottawa, more than 300 people packed into the Soloway Jewish Community Centre for a Sunday evening memorial service, lining the walls and taking every available chair — except 11, left vacant on the stage, each bearing the name of one of the victims.

Dena Libman, whose was also a cousin of Joyce Fienberg, addressed the crowd of residents, religious leaders and politicians from all parties and levels of government.

She said that in the Jewish world, it feels like everyone is a member of the same family — it’s just that some are closer than others.

Afterwards, she said there is healing that comes from gathering as a community.

“I felt the collective grief, and the collective vision to go forward,” she said.

Several armed police officers stood sentry over the event, although Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau told the crowd there are no existing threats against the community.

Federal Liberal cabinet minister and local MP Catherine McKenna called it sad that such security was a fact of life for Jewish communities.

She pointed to Statistics Canada data showing that Jews were the most targeted minority for hate crimes, saying anti-Semitism is not just an issue for the United States.

“It is times like this that we stand together, that we are outraged together … and that we remember that we are better together,” McKenna said.

Montreal-based Rabbi Reuben Poupko, who is originally from Pittsburgh, said no Jewish community was left untouched by the shooting, which left 11 people dead and six injured, including four police officers.

A vigil set for Monday evening at Montreal’s Beth Israel Beth Aaron synagogue will be a chance for community members to draw hope and strength from each other, he said in a phone interview.

“All of us can relate to what happened,” Poupko said. “We go to synagogues that look just like (Tree of Life) synagogue. Our ties and bonds of history and of solidarity and our values are very strong.”

Poupko said Jewish people have always been targets of hate crimes, both in Canada and elsewhere, but he said they’ve never experienced anything like Saturday’s mass shooting.

“Eleven people murdered in a synagogue in an outrageous act of evil,” he said, becoming emotional as he spoke about 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, who died in the Pittsburgh shooting.

“To survive the Holocaust and find refuge in a free country and lose your life doing what you’re supposed to do, going to synagogue on a Saturday morning … is not a thing that is easily understood,” he said.

Poupko said Montreal’s synagogues were remaining open and the community would continue to fight acts of hate in the only way they know how, “which is to lead lives of tolerance.”

Correction: The Canadian Press quoted a rabbi referring to Rose Mallinger, a victim of the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings, as a Holocaust survivor. She was not a Holocaust survivor.