Just days after 11 men and women were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Jewish community of Forsyth County rallied behind a message of unity and good triumphing over evil.
At a solidarity vigil held Monday night, members of Chabad Forsyth, community leaders and locals of all faiths gathered at Congregation Beth Israel in south Forsyth to honor the dead and pay tribute to their memories.
"This Saturday morning, Shabbat morning, the holiest day of the week, men women and children filled synagogues around the world to celebrate life, they came together to pray, connect, study and participate in acts of righteousness,” said Levi Mentz, Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel. “Yet, this Shabbat in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life synagogue, a man entered this space of love and kindness and murdered 11 men and women ... They were killed for one reason: They were Jewish. Tonight, we pay tribute to these holy men and women who lost their lives."
In his speech to the gathered crowd, Mentz said that the day after the shooting, he wondered if any parents would bring their children to Hebrew school, but instead of families staying away, Mentz said the class was "packed like never before."
After the vigil, one local resident, Joel Hoffman, said that seeing the large showing from the community in the face of evil was a beautiful, amazing thing, one that he said shows the strength of the community.
"I think it's wonderful the community all came together for this,” Hoffman said. “It shows strength after an evil event like that, coming together and showing we're not scared.
“No matter what your faith is, coming together like this, it's a beautiful thing."
In addition to Mentz, several leaders from the local community spoke at the vigil, including state Rep. Todd Jones and Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman.
Jones echoed ideas of unity brought up by the Rabbi, stating that no matter who we are and what our differences, we can put them aside.
“So many external factors play into this concept and this narrative that we have to be separate, that for some reason it's always us versus them, if we don't agree 100 percent of the time we can't be friends, we can't be on the same side,” Jones said. “We can find a way to put the differences aside. Those differences can be political, they can be faith-based, nationality, background, race, you name it. It should not matter, we know what the right thing to do is."
Freeman spoke to the crowd about the safety of the Jewish and other faith-based communities, explaining that they already have safety plans in place with Chabad Forsyth and regularly provide training classes to churches and other religious institutions on how to deal with crisis situations.
"We have a presence across any of our religious houses and institutions of faith in the county, but of course we just have to be honest in this world, the Jewish community has had some targeting of it," Freeman said. "We are going to continue working with our Jewish partners here to make sure that they have a safe and secure facility and that their members feel safe while they are here. It's a sad day in America when someone can't exercise their faith without fear.
After the speakers finished, Mentz read aloud each of the 11 names of the men and women killed on Saturday, shared a prayer and song repeating the 11 names again.
And as the gathered crowd dispersed, each lit a candle and took it to light their way, embodying the words spoken by Mentz just moments before.
"We can never allow acts of evil to define us,” Mentz said. “Yes, the Jewish people, we have seen a lot of pain, but we have always said one sentence, Am Yisrael Chai: The Jewish nation will live on.
“We will never allow any act of evil to impact our divine mission."