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Faiths unite in wake of Orlando shooting

By Jackie Lupo

Vigil attendees tie ribbons to a fence at Fulton Park. The names of the 49 murdered victims were written on the ribbons.


HASTINGS — In the Rivertowns, where families of multiple religions, races, national origins, and sexual orientations live side by side, or even within the same households, incidents such as the June 12 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando strike deep.

The community's pain became clear last Thursday evening, June 16, when an alliance of Rivertowns clergy held a vigil in Fulton Park, outside the Hastings Public Library, in response to the massacre. The vigil, which drew dozens of residents, was sponsored by the First Unitarian Society of Westchester, Grace Episcopal Church, Mishkan Ha’am Reconstructionist Congregation (Jewish), South Presbyterian Church of Dobbs Ferry, Temple Beth Shalom, and Trinity Rivertowns Church (Presbyterian). The program included prayers and speeches, as well as songs of peace and tolerance.

Hastings was one of thousands of communities across the U.S. that held vigils to show solidarity with the Orlando shooting victims in the days after the tragedy. Forty-nine people were murdered, and 53 were injured, at the nightclub.

As people gathered in the park in the early evening, Hastings residents Nicole Lesser and Shelley Katz distributed literature for the Westchester chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, an organization founded after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. Moms Demand Action has chapters in every state.

Hastings Mayor Peter Swiderski, addressing the talk about people being helpless to stem the tide of shooting incidents, said, “I don’t do helpless. I get upset and then I decide to do something about it.” In his remarks, Swiderski urged the crowd to reach out to him if they needed guidance about who to contact to share their views or to press for more effective gun-control laws.

The Rev. Jim Kirk of Trinity Rivertowns told the Enterprise that his congregation was “heartbroken for the nation and Orlando. I’ve just heard a lot of grief, and I think there’s a longing for a world where these kinds of events don’t happen. We as Christians find hope in a God who cares for this broken world — who cares for it to be good, who sees the brokenness and is committed to healing.”

Rabbi Edward Schecter of Temple Beth Shalom said “everyone’s nerve endings were exposed” because of statements made by Donald Trump in the wake of the tragedy. Schecter reflected that somehow, the aftermath of this shooting, with the public convening at town meetings and vigils across the nation, felt different from the days after other horrifying episodes of gun violence. “I feel like this is the tipping point,” the rabbi said. “In the end, I think the last thing we need is a vigil. We need political action.”

The Rev. Peggy Clarke of the First Unitarian Society of Westchester, one of the organizers of the vigil, told the crowd this is a time to “declare our anger and solidarity with those who grieve.” Kirk, Schecter, and the Rev. Anna Pearson of Grace Episcopal Church also provided religious and ethical perspectives.

The event highlighted the fluidity with which multiple religions interact in the Rivertowns, and in Hastings in particular. The First Reformed Church at Five Corners shares its facility with several other denominations, including Trinity Rivertowns, Mishkan Ha’am, the North Yonkers Community Church, and the Chinese Community Church of Westchester.

The Greenburgh Hebrew Center in Dobbs Ferry also decided to respond to the tragedy in Orlando. The synagogue, located on Broadway, held a non-denominational prayer service the evening after the vigil, before the regular Sabbath service. Shortly before the service, Rabbi Jay Stein told the Enterprise the synagogue was holding this special event because the Jews had “experienced many tragedies over the history of our people. We have developed a lot of ways we address tragedy in general. Tonight, I’m going to address the power of silence as a community, as a way to respond to tragedy.”

Stein said there was value in “the power of silence, of sitting shoulder to shoulder,” as people do when they make a condolence call. “It’s being in a holy place — that’s where healing can begin.”

The prayers and readings in the service also included a prayer for peace written by Pope Francis. The idea of quoting a Catholic prelate in a Jewish service was not out of bounds for this temple.

“I have by far the most diverse congregation I’ve every seen,” Stein said, noting that not only did he have people of all ages and economic circumstances, but of all races and ethnic backgrounds. “We have people with double Ph.D.s and people who haven’t even graduated high school — pound for pound, the greatest diversity in the country. That’s why people move here. It’s very cool.”

Stein said that in the wake of the Orlando shootings, “It’s become a political ball to bat around. We have to stop looking for people to blame, and start looking for people to comfort.”

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


June 24, 2016

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