EAST BRUNSWICK–Standing together to denounce bigotry and emphasize community inclusion, the East Brunswick Human Relations Council hosted its second annual Unity Walk.
Around 100 residents walked by the pond next to the municipal building on Oct. 29, specifically to remember the 11 people who were killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27.
Members from East Brunswick Boy Scout Troops 109, 132, 223 and 501 led the Pledge of Allegiance at the vigil. The East Brunswick Community Chorus, led by Kathy Spadafino, sang the “Star Spangled Banner.”
“I would like to start off this evening by sending our deepest condolences and heartfelt prays for the victims, our Jewish brothers and sisters and the brave law enforcement, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” EBHRC Vice Chairperson Erum Shakir said. “It is shocking that in 2018 a place of worship on the holiest day for Jewish people was turned into a massacre. No establishments should be terrorized where people find solace. We pray for the deceased and their families and call on all to regain their sense of humanity. Let us all move together as one.”
Speakers at the vigil included Mayor Brad Cohen, Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin, Board of Education member Susanna Chiu, the Rev. Jill Collict of the Nativity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer of Temple B’nai Shalom, and the Rev. Karen Johnston of The Unitarian Society.
During this difficult political climate, Shakir said the purpose of the Unity Walk is to unite all people and show support, strength and love for one another.
“We want to be able to bring people together in a public demonstration of unity and solidarity. Plain and simple, unity and diversity is the beauty of the land. The council is an ongoing effort to bring different cultures [and] perspectives close to each other,” Shakir said.
Emphasizing the importance of defending one another in times of blatant bigotry, Cohen said he wanted to tell everyone the story of Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, who was the highest ranking American officer captured during one of the Allied raids in January 1945 during World War II.
By this time, the Allied Forces were well aware of the Nazis’ plan to terminate Jews. Edmonds was commanded by a German general to assemble all of the Jewish soldiers in his command and have them lined up in front of the barracks by the next morning.
The next morning, all of the prisoners of war (POWS) were lined up and stood in place, close to 1,000 soldiers. The German officer angrily stated, ‘They cannot all be Jews,’ to which Edmonds replied, ‘We are all Jews.’ The officer then took out a pistol and put it to Edmonds’ head and demanded that he separate the Jews, according to Cohen.
“Edmonds replied, ‘According to the Geneva Convention, we have to give only our name, rank and serial number. If you shoot me you, will have to shoot all the POWs, and if you do that, after the war is over, you will be tried for war crimes and you will be executed,'” Cohen said. “The officer then walked away and the soldiers who survived the war recalled these events. Edmonds is now recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the righteous among nations for his heroism as a non-Jew, who saved Jews and put his own life in danger to save others.
“The Holocaust does serve as our modern-day reminder of the importance of unity, a deadly reminder of what happens when we ignore our common humanity, compassion and dignity. You see the Holocaust did not start as gas chambers or pictures of … bodies or mass graves,” Cohen said. “It started with politicians playing on the prejudices of a Christian nation. It stated with intolerance and hate speech. It started with denying basic rights and it started with the burning of houses of worship and businesses. It started with ordinary citizens turning a blind eye.”
Cohen said in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “We will remember not the words of our enemy, but only the silence of our friends.”
“Hate is hate. We must confront it, we must identify it, we must isolate it, stare it in the face and defeat it,” Cohen said.
Eisenkramer said a house of worship is a sanctuary and no one should ever have to worship in fear. This synagogue attack is only the latest in a line of mass shootings that have taken place in houses of worship throughout the United States.
“Hatred does not discriminate. This evening we also remember the attack on the church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017. We remember the attack in 2015 on the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. And we remember the shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012,” Eisenkramer said.
Eisenkramer said the Squirrel Hill residential neighborhood in Pittsburgh was also home to American television personality Fred Rogers, who only lived three blocks away from the synagogue. Rogers, while he was alive, reminded everyone of the supreme value of kindness and said “There are three ways to ultimate success: the first way is to be kind, the second way is to be kind, and the third way is to be kind.”
“In response to the terrible shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, there are three actions we can take right here in our town of East Brunswick, three we can do in our lives to combat hatred and to create greater kindness,” Eisenkramer said. “Number one, we must resolve not to spread stereotypes or tell inappropriate jokes or comments in person and online. … Number two, we must be upstanders. We must stand up for those who are bullied or mistreated online, in our schools and in town. We must stand for all people who are being put down because of their religion ethnicity, sexual orientation or the color of their skin.”
He said, “Finally number three, we must get to know each other better, we must build bridges. Our faith communities must lead the way in helping us to create greater connections with one another. … On this night let us resolve that the words of our mouths be words of peace. Let it resolve that our acts be acts of goodness on this night and on all nights going forward. Let our hearts be full of kindness.”
Contact Vashti Harris at email@example.com.