'Utter Shock and Disbelief': Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting Shakes Close-knit Jewish Community

About 40 percent of Squirrel Hill’s 15,000 residents are Jewish. On Saturday, they found themselves on lockdown, wondering which of their friends or relatives were alive

Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft
Members of the Squirrel Hill community in Pittsburgh at a vigil in remembrance of those who killed in a shooting at a local synagogue on October 27, 2018.
Members of the Squirrel Hill community in Pittsburgh at a vigil in remembrance of those who killed in a shooting at a local synagogue on October 27, 2018. Credit: Dustin Franz / AFP
Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft

In the immediate hours after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Saturday, residents were on lockdown in their homes, wondering which of their friends or relatives were dead or alive.

Squirrel Hill's residents describe it as a beloved neighborhood, considered a peaceful place – before an attack on one of the area's four synagogues marked it as the site of the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history.

Squirrel Hill is a quiet neighborhood, full of walkable streets lined with large old oak and elm trees, a mix of Tudor homes, rambling brick houses and apartment buildings. Some 40 percent of its residents are Jewish. It is a rare phenomenon: an urban American neighborhood that has maintained the Jewish heart of its city for over a century.

During Shabbat services on Saturday morning, a gunman entered the synagogue, purportedly shouted, "All Jews must die." He opened fire, killing 11 members of the congregation.

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“Here it is utter shock and disbelief. We are only two blocks away and all morning we've been hearing police cars and helicopters,” said Sara Stock Mayo, a Squirrel Hill resident familiar with people who attend the Tree of Life synagogue.

A community begins to react: ‘We have to become our own leaders’

“Within a few hours span we have gone from emotionally devastated to total shock. We are living in challenging times. But the outpouring from Muslim and Christian friends, who have reached out to say 'We are here for you,' has been tremendous,” says Stock Mayo, a fourth-generation Squirrel Hill resident who moved back with her husband from New York to raise their children here.

She says that as the aftermath of this massacre unfolds, the Jewish community will take comfort in the interfaith and other support they are receiving from around the city. “We have to keep remembering we do live in a special space, and recognize that there are people who really have our backs and want to show us their support and love.”

Mayo says she was disturbed by President Donald Trump’s reaction to the attack. His words, suggesting that if the synagogue had hired armed guards the massacre would not have occurred, failed to comfort her and her teenage children, she said.

“He’s not saying the right things and I knew he wouldn’t. I know who he is and I think for my right-wing friends who thought Trump was good for Israel, this will maybe be an interesting wake-up call for them,” she says.

“Our leadership doesn’t really care about us right now. So we have to find a way to make things happen. We have to become the leaders,” she added.

A Mr. Rogers kind of neighborhood

It doesn't just feel like a "Mr. Rogers kind of neighborhood" – it was Mr. Rogers' neighborhood. Fred Rogers, the iconic children’s television host lived here, and the church he attended was located across the street from the Jewish Community Center.

“It’s a really hamish place,” says Mayo, using the Yiddish word for friendly or homey. Residents describe a cooperation and connection between leaders and community members across the spectrum of Jewish identities – Lubavitch Hasidic, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist – that is unique in American-Jewish life.

Recently, it has also become home to a growing Asian population with Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants opening up next to longtime pizza places and ice cream parlors. Over the last few years, the JCC has been hosting a parade for Chinese New Year.

In Squirrel Hill, homes were built close together and whole families can usually be seen walking together to the JCC or to one of the four synagogues located within a four-block radius. Everyone seems to know everyone else, neighbors stopping to chat on wide sidewalks.

There’s a movie theater that dates back to 1931 and independently owned businesses, including a pizza place and shoe store, that have been around for about 50 years.

Nate Scher, 80, grew up here and never left. “I love walking down the street and saying hi to 18 people within a block and still shopping at stores that have been there since I was kid,” he said.

He has been a member of The Tree of Life synagogue for the past 40 years. As a professional videographer, he says he filmed dozens of weddings and bnai mitzvot there over the decades.

“I just love the neighborliness of it, feeling a community environment but still being in a city,” says Beth Grill, 54, a policy analyst who moved to Squirrel Hill from Detroit with her husband to raise their three children. “It’s a very easy place to live. Everyone knows everyone. It feels like a big small town.”

Grill’s children went to a Jewish day school in the neighborhood. There are also Orthodox schools, yeshivas and even an arts school.

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