At a five year memoriam of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Rabbi Doris Dyen said a prayer, but with a caveat.
“I’ve always been bothered by the term ‘thoughts and prayers,’” Dyen said.
Her prayer called for action, and that’s what attendees focused on Thursday evening.
When the crowd gathered at Rodef Shalom Congregation, local representatives and activists helped attendees create video, audio and hand-written stories detailing their own personal experiences with gun violence to send to legislators resistant to gun law reform.
Five years ago today, a gunman shot and killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. The shooting took members of the Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash congregations. In August of this year, a court sentenced the shooter to the death penalty.
During Thursday’s event, led by Squirrel Hill Stands against Violence, attendees commemorated all victims of gun violence alongside those of the Pittsburgh shooting.
The memoriam event came one day after a widely publicized mass shooting in Lewiston Maine, where a gunman still at large killed 18 people. Before a moment of silence, Dyen encouraged the audience to commemorate all gun violence victims since 2018, with a specific reference to the latest slaying.
“Those who have died by gun suicide, those who were victims of domestic violence, those who were a part of community violence, and especially, the community of Lewiston, Maine, for whom we pray, because they are the most recent victims of gun violence in a community,” Dyen said.
Since 2018, local activist groups have rallied around a package of Pennsylvania state legislation proposed by CeaseFirePA called the Common Agenda to End Gun Violence. The laws focus on basic gun control measures with popular support: lost or stolen gun reporting, safe storage requirements, universal background checks and extreme risk protection orders, which would allow judges to temporarily confiscate guns from individuals in a mental health crisis.
Bills calling for stolen gun reporting and safe storage were struck down by the state House in May. The two bills on extreme risk protections and temporary confiscations cleared the House around the same time but have not since progressed through the Republican-controlled Senate.
Civic leaders including state representatives Arvind Venkat and Abigail Salisbury led conversations about processing personal experiences into a story. Participants were invited to tell their stories using a video booth, a table for recording audio or pen and paper. Event organizers strongly encouraged everyone in attendance to tell a story.
Nathaniel Myers, a member of Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence, helped people put their memories and feelings into words and images.
“I was surprised how many people were willing to do videos,” Myers said. “Now, we do have an audience that has a lot of active folk, who are involved in talking to legislators, so I think that helped, but I think a lot of the other people who were just here for the commemoration were pretty willing to do videos.”
Jessica Podolsky, a 42-year-old Point Breeze resident, created a video detailing a friend who died by suicide using a gun after a dark period in his life following a debilitating illness. “I don’t love speaking,” Podolsky said. “I don’t always find myself to be super articulate, but it was easy.”
She also talked about her constant concern for her school-age niece and nephew.
“I can’t fathom that they go to school and have active shooter drills and live in a world where I wake up every day and there’s yet another mass shooting,” Podolsky said.
Cynthia Robinson, a 53-year-old from the Hill District, spoke to the camera about the constant gun violence she sees in her community, often affecting young people.
“Where I live, there’s a shooting every day. There’s gunshots,” Robinson said. “My grandson is traumatized.”
Maureen Anderson, a member of Moms Demand Action, created a video. A former teacher who still works in education, Anderson said that throughout her years teaching she had several students who were either shot and killed or closely knew other victims.
In line with the event’s focus, Anderson made connections with other activists by sharing contact information and information.
“It was not normal, in my life, to have students murdered. It shouldn’t be normal in anybody’s life,” Anderson said. “That’s when I started to feel like we gotta do something.”
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