1,500 attend South Portland vigil to mourn, ‘stand against hatred’

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Ashley DiPietro held her son Levi’s hand tightly as she walked past armed police officers on her way to the Congregation Bet Ha’am synagogue Tuesday evening.

There, they and the rest of an overflow crowd estimated at 1,500 people gathered for a vigil to commemorate the 11 lives lost Oct. 27 when Robert Bowers allegedly attacked worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

DiPietro arrived an hour early to the service, but still had to park a block away from the synagogue. The event originally had been scheduled for the Jewish Community Alliance on Congress Street in Portland, but was moved to Congregation Bet Ha’am on Westbrook Street to accommodate a larger crowd. It caused a rush-hour traffic jam in the Thornton Heights neighborhood.

“I wanted to show Levi that lots of people support us,” DiPietro, who is Jewish, said.

The synagogue sanctuary and social hall, which can seat more than 600 people, was standing room only even before the vigil began. Those who couldn’t find space stood in a hallway, or on patio next to an outdoor reflecting pool, and listened to the service over speakers.

Many weren’t Jewish, but said they felt compelled to support their neighbors and condemn acts of anti-Semitism.

Layne Gregory of Falmouth said her husband and two children are Jewish. She said last Saturday’s attack made them all feel “vulnerable.”

“It’s important for members of the community, no matter what religious walk of life, to show up and take a stand against hatred,” Gregory said.

Jeremy Stein, a board member of Congregation Bet Ha’am, stood at the door with a box of tissues, greeting people as they arrived.

“People want to be with their family and friends and community to feel support,” he said. “They’re sad and angry. They’re outraged.”

On Sunday, Stein said, members of the board met to discuss security at the synagogue.

“It’s been an ongoing conversation,” he said. “(But) this has ramped it up.”

While waiting for the vigil to start, Bishop Stephen Lane of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine said he hopes “we will understand that God doesn’t make the kinds of distinctions that we do and we need to support one another when any of us are under attack.”

During the program, hymns were sung and speakers offered words of grief and encouragement and lit candles in memory of Pittsburgh victims Cecil and David Rosenthal, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Melvin Wax, Jerry Rabinowitz, Joyce Feinberg, Daniel Stein, Rose Mallinger, Richard Bottfried and Irving Younger.

Rabbi Jared Saks of Congregation Bet Ha’am called on the attendees to “let grief galvanize us and mourning motivate us.”

“Judaism affords us the stages of grief … but it also calls on us to act,” Saks said.

Among those shared remarks were Portland and South Portland city officials.

Portland City Councilor Pious Ali, an immigrant from Ghana, expressed his condolences on behalf of Portland’s Muslim community.

South Portland Mayor Linda Cohen thanked those who came to show their support, and gave a nod to the police officers outside, thanking them for what they do to protect the community.

“It would’ve been so much easier to stay at home and be afraid to gather en masse,” Cohen said. “… But no, everyone is here and we are stronger together. When we give up our traditions and (are) afraid to gather together to support each other, the haters win. And we will not let them win.”

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling encouraged people to stand up to acts of hate and bigotry.

“We will not tolerate intolerance,” Strimling said.

After the ceremony ended, DiPietro said she felt “touched” by the volume and depth of support she felt from those she recognized as Jewish – and others she didn’t, who were simply there “in solidarity to offer support and their presence.”

She said she is preparing to leave on her first trip to Israel next week.

“It’s pretty scary now, but we just have to keep moving,” DiPietro said. “It’s hard for me to imagine bringing my son up in a world filled with so much vitriol, but times like tonight remind me how many of us there are to hope and pray every day.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

Approximately 1,500 people gathered Tuesday evening at Congregation Bet Ha’am, 81 Westbrook St. in South Portland, to mourn the lives lost Oct. 27 when a gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Molly Curren Rowles, executive director of the Jewish Community Alliance, said the response to and attendance at the community vigil was “remarkable.”

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, left, and South Portland Mayor Linda Cohen greet others in the sanctuary of Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland after Tuesday night’s vigil, where 11 candles were lit for the 11 victims of the Oct. 27 shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.