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US Jews Hold Vigil in Solidarity With Israeli Victims of Gay Center Attack

Jewish leaders in Washington have held a vigil to show solidarity with Israeli victims of a shooting attack on a gay community center in Tel Aviv that killed two people and wounded 15 others. Rabbis at the vigil called for an end to hate crimes and criticized Israel's ultra-orthodox community for excluding gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals.

At least 150 members of Washington's Jewish community, gathered Monday night to remember two Israelis killed by a masked gunman at a Tel Aviv gay community center on Saturday.

Many of them sang songs and drew banners appealing for tolerance and denouncing prejudice and homophobia.

Organizers of the vigil included rabbis from several Jewish denominations and gay and lesbian Jewish activists. They condemned the shooting as a hate crime and called for the perpetrator to be brought to justice.

Israeli police are searching for the gunman, who opened fire on teenage boys and girls attending a support group meeting at the community center. The gunman killed a 26-year-old man and a teenage girl in the worst ever attack on gays in Israel.

Jewish community leader Mark Pelavin addressed the vigil on behalf of the North American Union for Reform Judaism.

"Despite the feelings of anger, frustration, and sadness that envelop our hearts, we gather here tonight - to mourn, to remember, and above all, to offer our own solemn promise that none of us will rest until all of us are safe," he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the attack as a violation of Israel's democratic values.

Martin Peled-Flax is a representative of the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He told the crowd that Israel regards itself as one of the most pluralistic societies in the Middle East.

"Israel has made major steps over the last two decades so that society would become accepting of people who are different - of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender individuals. Today, there are openly gay career army officers, there are openly lesbian Israeli diplomats," said Pelde-Flax.

But, many Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jews do not approve of the homosexual lifestyle, viewing it as contrary to Jewish law. Their leaders have strongly denounced annual gay pride parades held in several Israeli cities.

An Orthodox rabbi at the Washington vigil accused some ultra-Orthodox Israelis of creating an environment that encourages acts of hatred against gays. Shmuel Herzfeld urged ultra-Othodox Jews to do some soul-searching.

"One of the things I am suggesting is a communal statement that synagogues sign on to, and that has language that creates a playing field that makes it clear that such language and violence will not be accepted, that people who are gay are welcome to pray and participate in synagogue life and that religion is not about excluding and hating but about finding areas where we can come and be in the presence of the divine," said Herzfeld.

Leaders of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority quickly condemned the Tel Aviv shooting as murder and called for the gunman to be caught and punished.

Israeli police have not identified the attacker as belonging to any particular religious or ethnic group. But the shooting has intensified the controversy in Israel over the growing prominence of the country's gay community.