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Hundreds mourn Newtown school shooting victims at Westport vigil

Published 9:20 pm, Sunday, December 16, 2012

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  • Clergy from Westport and Weston religious communities assemble at the front of the Westport Town Hall auditorium Sunday evening for a vigil in memory of the shooting victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Westport CT 12/16/12 Photo: Paul Schott / Westport News
    Clergy from Westport and Weston religious communities assemble at the front of the Westport Town Hall auditorium Sunday evening for a vigil in memory of the shooting victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Westport CT 12/16/12 Photo: Paul Schott

 

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Amid the pain of an unfathomable tragedy came a call Sunday for resilience -- and renewal.

A crowd so large that many had to be turned away heard that call at a vigil organized by the Interfaith Clergy Association of Westport and Weston to mourn the 26 lives claimed in a mass shooting Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. The event, which had been planned as a candlelight vigil on Veterans Green, was forced indoors because of the evening's inclement weather.

"When faced with tragedy, people of Israel sing a very special song, very simple: `Lo naf'sik lashir,'" said Jeremy Wiederhorn, rabbi of the Conservative Synagogue, who also is chairman of the clergy association. "No matter what we are faced with, no matter how painful the tragedy, lo naf'sik lashir, that we will not stop singing. For the sake of our community, for the sake of this country, for the sake of the people of Newtown, may we never stop singing."

Joined by the audience of several hundred in the Town Hall auditorium, Wiederhorn then sang a few bars of "God Bless America."

The vigil drew clergy from houses of worship in the two towns, including Greens Farms Congregational Church, Church of the Assumption, Temple Israel, Saugatuck Congregational Church, Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church of Westport and Weston, the Unitarian Church in Westport and Norfield Congregational Church in Weston. To express their solidarity, the clergy stood in a line at the front of the auditorium, taking turns to recite poems, prayers and psalms at the podium.

"God, help us to end the violence in our nation and help us to build safer communities and safer schools for our children," said the Rev. Dr. Bernard Wilson, the senior minister of Norfield Congregational. "God, in this time of sadness, help us to come together in love. Give us the courage to end this violence. God, help us to know that you are always with us."

Like Wiederhorn, Wilson led the audience in a rousing rendition of "God Bless America."

Though the vigil was moved indoors, a poignant tribute to the 20 children and six school employees killed in the massacre with a constellation of electric candles. The audience included many families, including children the same age as the Sandy Hook first-graders who lost their lives.

Some audience members were visibly overwhelmed by emotion as they wiped away tears and choked back sobs.

Perhaps the vigil's most moving moment came when the names and ages of the 26 victims at Sandy Hook Elementary were read aloud by the Rev. Kelly Rogers of Norfield Congregational and the Rev. Debra Haffner of the Westport-based Religious Institute.

"What can you possibly say when innocent children, who haven't even reached double digits, and their teachers, who tried valiantly to protect them, are massacred?" said Weston First Selectman Gayle Weinstein. "There simply aren't words to explain why and no words that can possibly comfort those grieving families. All we can do is reach out with our hearts to those who have been so devastated."

Westport First Selectman Gordon Joseloff told the vigil, "It's so close it could be us ... It could be any community in this country. But to have it occur in Fairfield County to a town that I know, and I'm sure many of you know and visited many times, it's unbelievable."

The proximity of Sandy Hook Elementary School -- only about 20 miles from Westport Town Hall -- amplified the emotional impact of the shootings, a number of the vigil's attendees told the Westport News.

"When I heard on the news that it was a quaint New England town, it hit me hard, because they could be talking about us," said Westport resident Maija Krasts. "I think the connection is there -- they're just like us. We feel it."

Several educators from the Weston school district attended the vigil as well. Fostering a reassuring school environment for students is a top goal this week, they said.

"Safety's always on our minds, but it will be even more so tomorrow," said Lois Pernice, director of pupil services for the Weston's schools. "We just to make sure the kids feel OK and let them know that they're safe."

Many parents who attended the vigil said they also acutely felt the tragedy.

"It's a little too close to home in many ways," said Julie Spivack, the mother of three boys -- one each in the fourth, sixth and seventh grades -- who attend Weston public schools. "To imagine having to make that ride to your school with that news, wondering if your child is alive, it's just awful. Anybody who is a parent, their heart is breaking. You react as a parent, first and foremost."

Lynne Goldstein, Cindy Eigen and Karen Varsano -- each the mother of three children in Westport public schools -- shared Spivack's perspective. They are three of the four founders of Kool 2B Kind, an organization that brings Staples High School students to the town's elementary schools to teach the younger pupils about kindness and tolerance. In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, they expressed hope that their group could act as a unifying force in the Westport schools.

"We're thinking that more high school students like ours, spreading kindness in the world, is the only thing that will battle an overwhelming tragedy such as this," Goldstein said. "Everyone is grieving for all of these poor families. It's really an overwhelming sadness from all of us and it gives the high school community a pro-active way to do good in the world, where sometimes there is a great tragedy."

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott