Members of the Squirrel Hill community in Pittsburgh came together for a student-organised candle vigil in remembrance of those who died earlier in the day during a shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue,
A group of students from Alderdice, a high school in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, emerged from their synagogues, homes and cafes after three and a half hours of sheltering in place, and sent out texts to each other saying: “Meet at Starbucks.”
Sophia Levin, 15, said the network was in place since May, when a group of Alderdice students organised a walkout in solidarity with the one organised by the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the last time a mass killing gripped the nation’s attention.
The students, mostly girls, decided a havdalah ceremony, marking the separation of the holy sabbath from the rest of the week, would be the best representation of their feelings. Word went out, and by 5:30 pm there were thousands of people, Jews and non-Jews, packed into the intersection of Forbes Avenue and Murray Avenue, just feet away from the Pittsburgh Jewish Community Center, the heart of the Jewish community.
Ask the locals about the late Fred Rogers, and they’ll smile and point toward where the 20th-century icon of gentle, takes-a-village children’s television spent most of his life.
And then the smile disappears, a block or so away from The Tree of Life Congregation. There a gunman who shouted out that he was determined to kill Jews murdered 11 people on Saturday morning during a brit milah, a circumcision ceremony, before a SWAT team arrested him.
The havadalah vigil took place at a sundown, hours after the shooting and even before any of the victims’ names had been released.
“I take care of some of the members of this community,” said Katie Brinton, a nurse who is not Jewish. “I went to Jewish community summer camps.”
She came to the vigil with her husband, Tristan Palazzolo, and their toddler son, Marin. “I’m lucky to live here,” she said. “This is a wonderful place.” But was she surprised? No.
“There is Nazism and anti-Semitism here,” she said, referring to the racist and-anti-Semitic killing spree carried out by Richard Baumhammers in this city in 2000. Baumhammers killed five people, including his Jewish neighbor, and shot up a synagogue.
“I’ve never been in denial. But it’s never been this close,” Brinton said.
That tension, between the defiance of a small, diverse community where neighbors become friends for life, and the realisation that beyond its tree-lined streets and row houses an anger lurks and is metastasising, was as stark during the vigil as the separation marked by the havdalah ceremony, which ends Shabbat.
Andy Gespass, 63, a lawyer, watched his wife, Debbie, give directions over the phone to friends. “We’re at the zebra crossing,” she said. “Are they coming?” he said, as casually as someone awaiting a dinner date.
“We’re waiting for them to publish the names,” he said, referring to the 11 dead, and that was an oft-heard claim throughout the crowd. “I’m sure we’re going to know people,” his wife said.