PITTSBURGH — On Saturday night, hours after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, thousands of local residents gathered at a nearby intersection to show their solidarity with the city’s Jewish community. The vigil took place just blocks away from the site of the killings in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood that is home to more than a dozen synagogues and other Jewish institutions.
The decision to hold the event there was not coincidental. The idea was to send a message that Pittsburgh as a city was there to support its Jewish community on the most tragic day in the community’s history. Speakers included Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, members of Congress and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who in an interview, told Haaretz that President Donald Trump was wrong to link the shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation to the absence of armed security at the synagogue.
Christian and Muslim leaders also attended. One priest who spoke at that vigil declared: “Our message today is – hate isn’t going to win, not here in Pittsburgh.” That indeed seemed to be the message expressed by many in attendance who spoke with Haaretz.
The outdoor event was held despite incessant rain. The weather didn’t stop people from turning out. “We felt we had to come here,” said Steve Bennet, a resident of Squirrel Hill who attended the vigil with his wife. “We were closed inside the house for a long time today. We saw police cars and ambulances come and go, but we could not leave. We live very close to the synagogue. It’s hard to grasp that something like that could happen here, in our own neighborhood.”
The centerpiece of the Jewish community
Squirrel Hill, which is the centerpiece of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, is considered one of the city’s most attractive neighborhoods. The streets around the Tree of Life Congregation are full of trees and handsome turn-of-the-century homes.
“We love walking around this area, it’s a walking neighborhood,” said Bennet, speaking to Haaretz on Saturday. “We usually walk every Saturday morning, and we always pass by the Tree of Life Congregation. It’s part of our routine. This morning we were also planning to do that, but as we got close, a police officer jumped in our path and said we have to turn around; can’t go that way, because there is an active shooter situation.”
Leah, a local resident in her thirties, tearfully recounted to Haaretz how shocked she was by the attack at the synagogue, in which 11 people were killed. “This is unconscionable,” she said. “There are no words to describe how sad a day this has been. I can only hope this will be a wake-up call to our country. People need to wake up and realize that hatred and racism are being normalized in our society. We just can’t accept that. We have to fight back.”
As a school teacher, she added, she planned to tell her students that expressions of racism should be treated like a suspicious bag that someone leaves behind at a train station: “If you see something, say something. That’s what I plan to tell them. Never ignore it. Never keep quiet.”
A number of those who attended the vigil and who spoke with Haaretz expressed criticism of social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter for their alleged failure to limit expressions of violent racism on their platforms. Robert Bowers, the purported assailant in Saturday's attack, had for months posted racist and violent content on the internet, including conspiracy theories about a Jewish plot to flood America with immigrants.
Jeremy Cohen, who attended the vigil, told Haaretz: “This guy probably isn’t the last person who will use violence after threatening to do so on social media. Even before this [shooting], we saw another crazy person send bombs in the mail to President Obama, George Soros and Hillary Clinton. That guy wrote about his views for months, and people who reported about it were ignored. This is a big problem. We can’t ignore it anymore.”
Cathy and David Long, who live just a block away from the synagogue, joined the vigil with their children. One of their daughters, an elementary school student, said that she heard the gunshots and the police while about to go out to buy a pumpkin for Halloween. The Longs' son, who just recently celebrated his bar mitzvah, told Haaretz some of his friends were at Tree of Life this weekend. “We all know people who are members,” Cathy said. “This is a neighborhood were people know each other. We’re all very worried about the victims of this shooting.”
Her sentiments were a common theme among residents of the neighborhood – the fact that despite being home to thousands of people, Squirrel Hill and its Jewish community enjoy a small town sense of neighborhood intimacy. Mayor Peduto made a similar point when he told Haaretz that “Pittsburgh is a small city. People here know each other.” One local resident who asked not to be named said Saturday that “it’s hard to find someone in this neighborhood who doesn’t know someone who could have been killed today.”
For many, the vigil on Saturday night was an uplifting and optimistic event. Cathy Long said that she was especially touched when non-Jews in attendance listened to Jewish prayers that were repeated during the event, and then, after memorizing some of the words, joined their Jewish neighbors in singing. “It was probably the best moment many people had during the entire day,” she said.
Politics was not front and center at the vigil, although there were references made to political rhetoric and the issue of gun control. The approach of the midterm Congressional elections, which will take place next week, was also inevitably on people's minds throughout the city on Saturday. Pittsburgh is considered a stronghold of the Democratic Party, but the suburbs around it are heavily contested areas where Democrats and Republicans are competing for electoral success this year.
“I’m angry that it hasn’t yet been 24 hours since the shooting, the bodies haven’t yet been put to the ground, and the entire discussion in the media is already shifting to who should be blamed and how this all relates to Trump,” said a man named Frank who works at a nearby business and did not share his last name. ”This is a tragic event involving an insane person who went and shot people. I don’t think we should turn it into a political event.”
Many of those who attended the vigil disagree. Comments about the importance of voting were heard in the crowd a number of times. One participant told Haaretz that “turnout in this area was already going to be high for the midterms, but this will only push it higher.”
Ron Linden, a local resident and member of the Jewish community, wrote a post on Facebook that was widely shared in which he cast blame upon politicians who offer “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting instead of advancing policies to actually improve the situation. “We are not really safe,” he wrote, “because this vile, murderous bigotry can hit all of our neighborhoods. The sentiments behind it have been legitimized and weaponized by cowardly, unprincipled political leaders who will now fall all over themselves to send their thoughts and prayers.”
“Keep those facile words,” he wrote. “Instead, show us some balls. Stand up to the purveyors of hate, instead of cozying up to them. Stand up to the NRA [the National Rifle Association], instead of licking their boots for campaign contributions. Stand up for our communities, our diversity, for the founding dream of our society and our country. Today’s victims, like others before them, deserve no less.”
In the course of the vigil, the bodies of the dead were still inside the synagogue. More than 12 hours after the shooting, the local police had still not given authorization to move the bodies from the murder scene, which is the site of an ongoing criminal investigation.
'Today this place is everybody's shul'
A small group of Jewish burial workers was standing outside the synagogue long after midnight waiting for the go-ahead to perform their work. All of them were Orthodox Jews, but one of them told Haaretz: “On days like this, there isn’t such a thing as an Orthodox or Conservative synagogue. Today this place is everyone’s shul.”
The vigil on Saturday night was a show of force, unity and optimism. But the Jewish community of Pittsburgh would be waking up on Sunday to face one of the most difficult days in its history, a day of funeral preparations, hospital visits and the beginning of a long, painful recovery process.
“We will emerge stronger from this,” said Meryl Ainsman, the board chairwoman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “But it will take time. Right now, we can only think about tomorrow morning.”