Jewish KU students focus on staying strong, spreading goodness in wake of Pittsburgh massacre

photo by: Dylan Lysen

KU student Marlena Geller writes a pledge to vote in the memory of the 11 victims massacred at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday. Geller, who is Jewish, said she believes gun violence is a major political issue that needs to be addressed.

For University of Kansas student Kyle Gold, the mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday that left 11 people dead hit close to home.

The massacre targeting Jewish people was similar to an event that occurred in his hometown of Overland Park in 2014, when a white supremacist with anti-Semitic beliefs killed two people at the Jewish Community Center and another person at a nearby retirement community. Gold said Monday that both his father and his sister were in the community center during that attack and survived.

“It’s tragic how much hate some people have in their hearts toward our people,” Gold said as he helped Chabad of KU, a campus Jewish community, memorialize the victims Monday afternoon on campus. “We just need to stay strong.”

Robert Gregory Bowers, 46, who is accused of the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, briefly appeared in court Monday to face charges of killing the 11 people and wounding several others. After the attack, he told police that “I just want to kill Jews” and that “all these Jews need to die.”

The massacre is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.

On Monday, Gold and many other student members of Chabad of KU set up a tent in front of KU’s Wescoe Hall to memorialize the victims, asking those passing by to pledge an action in the victims’ memories and to spread goodness to the greater KU community.

photo by: Dylan Lysen

KU student Marcy Luttinger hands a card to a student walking by a Chabad of KU tent on campus Monday. The card aims to remind people to be kind to others and do good in their community.

Along with KU Hillel and the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation, Chabad also held a vigil for the victims of the attack on Sunday. Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vermont St., will hold another vigil at 6 p.m. Thursday at the church.

Rabbi Zalman Tiechtel of Chabad of KU said the attack was especially heinous for the Jewish community because it happened in a synagogue, a place of faith and prayer.

“For someone to be filled with such hate and darkness to come and attack during such a special time for the Jewish people on the Sabbath morning, it is something that has touched every member of the Jewish community very deeply,” he said. “We are all very shaken by it.”

But at the same time, Tiechtel has been encouraging the Jewish KU students to be proud of their faith and to focus on spreading more light after such a dark event.

“This man had the intentions of paralyzing us, but instead, it has made us stronger, more united and more focused on our daily mission to make this world a better place,” he said.

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Rabbi Zalman Tiechtel of Chabad of KU explains a plastic ark, which works like a piggy bank, to a KU student on Monday. Chabad handed out the arks to encourage students to collect spare change and share with someone in need as part of their message to spread more kindness.

In response to the attack, Tiechtel said Chabad of KU is conducting the ARK campaign to spread acts of random kindness. The arks, which the group also handed to passersby on campus, look similar to Noah’s Ark and work like a piggy bank. When the ark is full of change, the owner is encouraged to hand it to someone in need.

“We’re using it as a way to empower people to turn fear into action,” he said. “It’s a way to remind them of the importance of being a conduit of good and spreading more light.”

Tiechtel’s message of being proud to be Jewish resonated with Marcy Luttinger.

On the pledge board, Luttinger pledged to light more Shabbat candles for the memory of the victims. Marlena Geller, another Jewish KU student, said she pledged to remember them through voting in elections.

“I think gun violence is a really big issue,” Geller said. “With the government being led the way it is, I think we need to stand up. With the current group of officials in office, there is more hate toward minorities, and we need to vote and have our voices heard.”

Although others felt comfortable talking about political issues, Gold said he didn’t think politics should be involved in the discussion of fighting violent anti-Semitism because it could further divide people.

“Politics can be divisive,” he said. “The only way we can combat this is to get closer and stay together.”

Rabbi Neal Schuster of KU Hillel said he’s focusing on the importance of learning to engage with people.

Hateful actions such as the shooting often occur because of a deep anger caused by fear, he said. Some people may be fearful of what’s happening to the world or fearful of their place in society.

“What we are in deep need of in our society right now is to work on our ability to have real conversations with people with whom we disagree and hear and ask questions that take us beyond just the anger,” he said.

He said he’s not advocating for Jewish people to “listen to and hug it out with people who want to destroy us,” but instead to engage with people who may be drawn to those extremes.

“Ultimately, I think the answer to hate is not going to be more hate,” he said. “We may be able to conquer or defeat certain people or movements, but you are not going to get rid of hate with more hate. The only way to actually get rid of it is to melt it away.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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