Former Pittsburgh resident tells London vigil: ‘My home won’t be the same again’
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Former Pittsburgh resident tells London vigil: ‘My home won’t be the same again’

Jessica Weinberg Neiss, who moved to London two months ago, tells audience at JW3 vigil that victims 'were only murdered because they were Jewish'

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Sadiq Khan joins the American envoy to London in lighting 11 memorial candles at JW3
Sadiq Khan joins the American envoy to London in lighting 11 memorial candles at JW3

Jessica Weinberg Neiss is not a familiar name to British Jews — or any part of British society.

And yet it was she who drew both applause and tears on Monday night, at a vigil attended by hundreds of people, Jews and members of Christian, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities, in a vigil to honour the 11 people murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Despite a starry line-up — Home Secretary Sajid Javid, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, the American ambassador to London, Woody Johnson, the new deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Stephen House, Israeli ambassador Mark Regev, and many more — it was Jessica whose words touched the packed audience at JW3, the Jewish community centre for London.

For Jessica, as she explained, grew up in Squirrel Hill, and was batmitvah in the Tree of Life synagogue, where she also attended Hebrew school. She described the neighbourhood as “a microcosm of what’s good in the world”, with 13 synagogues in a five-mile radius.

“I am a Pittsburgher. Squirrel Hill is where neighbours treat each other with respect and people of all races and creeds and backgrounds can live together peacefully”. Jessica, who moved with her family to London only two months ago, said British people had asked her if there were security guards at her synagogue. “My response has been, what for? I guess that’s going to have to change”.

She said that the murderer had “violated” her home: “he has ripped open and defiled my sacred space and it will never be the same again”. Though in fact she had known three of the victims, she said that this was “a moot point. They could have been you and they could have been me. They were Jews, and they were only murdered because they were Jewish.”

You can watch Jessica’s speech in full by clicking here.

Board president Mare van der Zyl addressing the ceremony at JW3

The event was put together by the Board of Deputies in partnership with JW3, and the fact that so many people dropped what they were doing and agreed to take part was a testament to the feeling of solidarity with the Jewish community.

Throughout the evening tribute was paid to the work of Britain’s Community Security Trust, (CST) whose chief executive, David Delew, said that the Pittsburgh attack reflected “our worst fears” for UK Jews. He wanted, he said, to see a world in which there was no need for CST, but recognised that the Pittsburgh murders were a sign that everyone needed to have a role in the security effort.

The Board of Deputies president, Marie van der Zyl, opened the evening with a sombre message to Pittsburgh Jews of “love and solidarity”, but reminded her audience that “what begins with the Jews never ends with the Jews”. Such an attack, she warned, was “an attack on all of us”. She, like many of the following speakers, used the word “defiance” to sum up people’s response to the murders, and said that Pittsburgh had been “a call to action” for people to work more closely with other communities.

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis — who had left another event in order to speak at the vigil — reminded the audience that “indifference” needed to be avoided at all costs. One of the immediate responses from the Pittsburgh killings — which took place during Shabbat services in the Tree of Life synagogue — has been “Show Up for Shabbes”, a call to Jews throughout the world to take part in their own synagogue services this weekend. “Let’s all go to shul next Shabbes”, he urged. “Nothing will keep us away”.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid described the murders of the 11 Jews as “a calculated and unrepentant attack”, the deadliest attack on an American Jewish community in history. He quoted police radio at the scene: “The suspect keeps talking about killing Jews. He doesn’t want any one of them to live”. But, he warned, “antisemitism does not come out of a vacuum. People aren’t born with conspiracies and prejudices in their minds. This tragedy comes out of antisemitic incidents that in the US increased by a shocking 50 per cent last year.”

Home Secretary Sajid Javid speaking at the moving ceremony at JW3

In Britain, the Home Secretary said, it was “deeply shocking to me that there is so much anxiety [about antisemitism}. We are listening, we hear your concerns.” He said the government, a strong supporter of CST, “would be open to new ways of offering support”.

Many speakers, including Mr Javid, highlighted the fact that the killer had objected to the fact that the Tree of Life communities had offered “generous support to refugees”. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism, said his community had the same approach: “refugees welcome”. But Rabbi Wittenberg asked his audience to go further in relations with other communities, making scathing reference to those who sat by while there were racist remarks on a RyanAir flight. “It’s up to us to speak out”, he said, adding that a message from a Pittsburgh resident had been clear. “We don’t really want your thoughts and prayers. We want your guts. We want you to stand up against racism and antisemitism”.

Packed out JW3 audience for the memorial

Every one of the 17 addresses was passionate, notably those of Fiyaz Mughal, founder of Tell Mama, which is modelled on the CST, and Bishop Graham Kings, assistant bishop of Southwark diocese, speaking on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. There were contributions from Hannah Rose, president of the Union of Jewish Students, Claudia Mendoza of the Jewish Leadership Council, and from Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, of Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism.

And in a simple, but telling ceremony, Rabbi Marc Soloway, British-born but who now heads a Masorti congregation in Boulder, Colorado, spoke the names of each Pittsburgh victim while a yarzheit candle was kindled for them. A book of memory was opened and will be hand-delivered to the Tree of Life community next week.

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