There are three Conservative Jewish congregations in Pittsburgh’s heavily Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Two of the congregations, both based in the building of the Tree of Life synagogue, were attacked Saturday by an anti-Semitic gunman who killed eleven people.
It is unclear when they’ll be allowed to return to their building, which is still an active crime scene.
The third Conservative synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom, is a 15-minute walk away. It had its Sunday morning prayer service at 8:00 a.m. as scheduled. But the minyan was anything but ordinary.
More than 50 people were at the Sunday minyan in the chapel, up from the normal 15. Some of them were regulars at Tree of Life, now closed off by police.
While most people were stoic, some prayers were punctuated with sobs from members of the community — one woman cried, “they don’t have a shul anymore” as she was hugged by her neighbor in the pew.
Extra readings were added to the end of the service — Psalm 23 was sung and read in both English and Hebrew, as was Psalm 130: “From the depths I have called You, O Lord.”
At around 8:45, before the Mourner’s Kaddish at the end of the service, the rabbi, Seth Adelson, invited people to share the names of the victims that they knew. The list was scheduled to be released by the FBI at 9:00. Some people present already knew some of the names, but for others, some of them came as a surprise.
“Melvin Wax, Richard Gottfried, Dan Stein, Cecil Rosenthal…” one person began.
“Cecil Rosenthal? Jesus,” someone muttered.
“David Rosenthal,” a few people added simultaneously.
“Jerry Rabinowitz,” said one more.
“It’s also the anniversary of my mother’s passing,” a man added at the end.
And so the Kaddish began, all 50 people standing, sanctifying and praising God in the midst of the tragedy that hit so close to home.
“Reach out to the people you know, call the people who you haven’t spoken to in a while…we have to take care of each other in the midst of this devastating loss,” Adelson said in his concluding remarks.
After that, he went up to his congregants, giving some hugs, writing down prayer advice for others.
“They didn’t prepare us for this at the Jewish Theological Seminary,” Adelson told the Forward after the service.
It was a gray day in Squirrel Hill. Some of the houses had Halloween decorations or Steelers flags, but most looked dark and uninhabited. Of the few people who were out on the streets, most of them seemed to be headed for Tree of Life, which is still roped off with police tape.
“Where are we going?” one young boy holding a card asked his mother, who was also carrying a baby in a bjorn.
“It’s the street right next to bubbe and zayde,” she responded.
News trucks began to sprout as the synagogue grew nearer: ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News. The media outpost across the street from the synagogue was a mess of cable wires. There were reporters from local news, Good Morning America, two Israeli TV stations. Jon Snow of the UK’s Channel 4 — the Tom Brokaw of Great Britain — huddled with two producers.
By the synagogue, four friends had gathered to lay flowers and a card. One of them, Jeremy Buisseger, said one of his classmates had a relative who had died. “Hate crimes hadn’t been a problem here,” he said.
Buisseger pointed out that much of Pittsburgh’s Jewish life has been concentrated in Squirrel Hill for decades. A community survey earlier this year estimated that a quarter of the metropolitan area’s 50,000 Jews lives in that one neighborhood.
“Pittsburgh – it is a very connected Jewish community,” said Beth Kissileff, the wife of the rabbi of New Light Congregation, one of the communities that prays at Tree of Life (Kissileff is also a Forward contributor).
Kissileff said that after the shooting on Saturday, people from three different synagogues came to visit her and her husband. And people in Squirrel Hill frequently pray at multiple different synagogues. “I could go to any shul on Shabbat morning and know people,” she said.
The sense of loss was even reflected in local businesses: At the Dunkin’ Donuts a block away from the Jewish Community Center and half a mile from Tree of Life, a piece of paper posted on the door showed a Star of David and read, “We send our thoughts and condolences to the Tree of Life Synagogue and the community of Squirrel Hill.”
Kissileff knew many of the victims from Tree of Life. “The people who were killed were dream congregants,” she said. They were the ones who arrived at synagogue on time, so that a quorum could be counted and services begun. The shooting began soon after the 9:45 a.m. publicly listed start time, which most Jews tend to ignore.
“I wish I could tell them how much I love them and appreciate everything they did for the shul,” she added.
Melvin Wax, 88, read Haftarah every week and was “a very pure soul”; Daniel Stein, 71, was “devoted to the shul”; Richard Gottfried, 65, hoped to retire soon — and one of the reasons he was looking forward to it so that he wouldn’t have to miss synagogue to work on holidays.
Kissileff said her husband and others hid in a storage closet while the shooting was happening. She noted that while she already felt devastated — the victims comprised half of New Light’s High Holiday choir — it could have been a lot worse. Dor Hadash, the Reconstructionist community that also met in Tree of Life, held a Bat Mitzvah last week. Hundreds of people were there.
She added that she was heartened that so many Jews, in Squirrel Hill and all over the world, were reacting to the shooting of Jews at prayer by choosing to pray more. “It gives me strength to know people are still living Jewish lives despite all the suffering,” she said.
Tears And A Minyan In Pittsburgh Synagogue On Day After