by ROSE BRENNAN & STEPHEN ZUBRYCKY, Managing Editors
Three days after a religiously motivated mass shooting rocked the nation, the Riverdale community gathered by the hundreds at the Riverdale Monument in Bell Tower Park to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community on Tuesday, Oct. 30.
The United for Peace Rally, organized by several of Riverdale’s interfaith leaders, was organized in the wake of an anti-Semitic act of violence at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Oct. 27, which left 11 dead and another seven injured. This event had particular significance to the predominantly Jewish Riverdale neighborhood.
The rally began just after 6 p.m., with an opening statement of unity by Mehnaz Afridi, Ph.D., associate professor of religious studies and director of the Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith (HGI) Education Center at Manhattan College.
“God created us from a single soul,” Afridi said. “There should not be a difference between you and I, whether I wear something or I don’t. This is a message of America. This is who we are.”
Afridi is also the faculty of advisor of MC’s Muslim Student Association (MSA). Several of the organization’s members were present at the rally, including club president Rabea Ali.
“Personally, I decided to come as a show of support… for the different communities around the Riverdale area, particularly the Jewish community after the attacks,” Ali said. “It’s time for all of us to stand together and show support.”
Afridi’s opening statement was followed by remarks from Rabbi Barry Dov Katz of the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale (CSAIR). Katz made a special appeal to the children and young children in attendance at the rally.
“I want to say to the children here: this is not the way it’s supposed to be. This is not the way you’re supposed to gather with members of your community. This isn’t what it’s supposed to look like. Every one of you, adult and child, who acts with peace, who acts kindly every day, you are peace, atem shalom.”
“I don’t want to gather at this monument again for this reason. We’ve been here so many times after attacks on churches. I know people from the LGBTQ community and so many other times, it’s never for a good reason. And I want to come back saying it’s peace. It’s peace that’s arrived, because we’ve made it arrive,” Katz said.
Before the names of the shooting’s victims were read, Rabbi Ezra Seligson of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale spoke. Seligson visited Pittsburgh and the Tree of Life Synagogue in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s shooting.
“When I arrived in Pittsburgh on Sunday, there was a feeling of heaviness. At the memorial outside the synagogue, I could feel the heaviness of the souls hovering, hovering, as they had not yet been buried,” Seligson said. “As I drove home from Pittsburgh yesterday, I continued to feel the heaviness. But it wasn’t just the crushing heaviness of loss, but it was the heaviness of strength, of fortitude, of the resilience of a community and a nation that stands together.”
The sky began to turn dark as the names of the massacre’s 11 victims were read, each answered with the Hebrew refrain, “Ani shalom (I am peace).”
Then, Rabbi Thomas Gardner of the Riverdale Temple shared a personal reflection on the political and social divisions in America.
“I know I speak for you when I say that my heart is sick: sick of the violence, sick of the hatred. Along with you, I cried, and I asked myself, ‘What can I do? What can we do to stop or slow or reverse the evil that we have seen?” Gardner said.
“We cannot shrug our shoulders and say, ‘what a shame’ and go back to the same way of doing things,” Gardner said. “We must let this be something that galivinizes us to remake the world with radical love, compassion and acceptance. I invoke the eternal one, who called on us to love the stranger as ourselves, and pray that this time, love will win over hatred, acceptance of those who are different over rejection, and, please God, please God, peace over violence and life over death.”
Lois Harr, assistant vice president and director of campus ministry and social action at MC, then read the Prayer of Saint Francis, a Catholic prayer which begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
“The forces of love and light… are stronger than the forces of evil and darkness and hate,” Harr said in an interview before the rally began.
The HGI Center of Manhattan College played a key role in putting the rally together.
“The actions that kind of harmed the community are really close to our mission and we feel that in this time it’s just really important to bring everyone together and acknowledge what’s going on in the culture,” said junior Ireland Twiggs, who works at the center.
In advance of the event, Manhattan College President Brennan P. O’Donnell, Ph.D., sent an email to the entire college.
“As Lasallians, we stand together for peace, for understanding, and for work together with all women and men of good will in upholding human dignity in all of its diversity,” the email read.
“It’s a very important thing for us as a college to recognize that we’re in a neighborhood where a lot of our brothers and sisters in faith have suffered a terrible tragedy,” O’Donnell said. “We need to acknowledge that.”
The gathering was attended by many of the neighborhood’s political and elected leaders, including State Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, Democratic Nominee for State Senate Alessandra Biaggi and Congressman Eliot L. Engel.
“I think it’s important that all people of good will get together and speak out against these horrendous murders and to call them out for what they are,” Engel said in an interview after the rally concluded. “We’re not going to kowtow to people who have hate in their hearts.”
Engel believes the caustic nature of modern political discourse to be a primary contributor to the violence.
“I also think that the rhetoric in our country has to be toned down…. I think the President has got to stop with some of the rhetoric, and we need to instead look for ways to bring us together,” Engel said. “We need sensible gun control in this country. He went into a synagogue with an automatic rifle. Those are weapons of war.”
But by and large, the tone of the rally was one of unity, not of political division.
“I want all faiths across the board to see that we are human, we are equal, we stand together and we bond together when someone else’s community loses someone, when someone else’s community is in despair, when someone else’s community has fear,” Afridi said. “We stand up for the other, not just for ourselves.”