NORMAN — OU Hillel is not a large group at Oklahoma's largest university.
In fact, it's one reason why the center of the University of Oklahoma's Jewish community feels like such a secure place, OU junior Graham Wall said.
"We talked about it a lot that the reason we feel so safe in Hillel is because few people know we’re actually here," he said.
Wall, an Idabel, Oklahoma native, and his fellow Hillel members capped a vigil on Thursday afternoon by lighting candles, one each for the 11 victims of the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday. The intimate facility on the corner of Elm and Boyd was packed to the brim, with some having to stand at the back to hear from several speakers.
It was one of many vigils held in places like this across the country in the wake of the tragedy. And among the sadness felt and hope for the future expressed, there was also a hit of fear in a community that is still processing the idea of being targeted simply for their religious beliefs.
“I would say for sure, there’s some fear," Wall said. "These were the little old people who show up at the beginning of services. The families weren’t there yet because you know who’s running late. The kids don’t tie their shoes. It’s the same as any house of worship."
A central theme to the speeches made was reckoning and overcoming that fear felt among Norman's Jewish community and all communities across the country. Alan Levenson, director of the OU Schusterman Center for Judaic and Israel Studies, read from rabbinical texts in his address as examples of how to remember and move forward.
“I imagine many of the vigils across the country are negotiating the degree of emphasis to put on the Jewishness of the victims and the rise of violence and intolerance globally versus the particular history of antisemitism," Levenson said. "This is a false image. We are all human beings, and we are all many, many other things, as well. We are, as the rabbis put it, all stamped in the divine image, and all unique.”
Levenson spoke about continuing to do what is right and to go through life in the face of tragedy.
“I was in the synagogue last Saturday morning, and I’ll be in the synagogue this Saturday morning," he said.
Similar messages and expressions came from outside Norman's Jewish community, too. Jane Irungu, associate vice president for the Office of University Community, offered sentiment from the OU administration. She read out the names of the 11 victims.
“Lives that were taken. They didn’t have to go," Irungu said. "We pray for peace, we pray for healing, and we pray for togetherness this afternoon. And we pray for bonds of love that will not be broken by hate. May they rest in eternal peace. May we who are left leave the world in peace.”
OU Police Department Chief Liz Woollen also spoke, as officers who responded to the active shooter call and engaged the shooter before apprehending him were among the injured. She expressed her department's dedication to protect all of the university's students, faculty and staff.
"Our mission at OUPD is to protect and serve, and I am here to promise you that we are here to protect everyone," Woollen said.
As much as it helped being with the Jewish community in the wake of tragedy, Wall said it was that support from the rest of campus and Norman that helps the most.
"There’s also a comfort," he said. "We saw the incredible presence of our local law enforcement who felt it was important just to come and be here. Obviously, we had to ask a few of them to be here in particular, but the fact that there were more, and that the chief showed up, it means a lot.
"You can never feel totally safe, but it’s nice to feel less alone."
OU Hillel Executive Director Jessica Rundle and Student Life Coordinator Jack Fuchsman read a letter to their students at the vigil's end. In it, they expressed their sorrow and grief, their disbelief, but also their hope for students' ability to improve the world.
"We look at our students, most of you hours away from your families when this tragedy happened, and we think we have to do better, we have to be better," Rundle said. "To create a better world, to end hate, to start to love more, to be kinder, to be more sensitive, to be more forgiving of each other and of ourselves."