People attend a community gathering in Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in the aftermath of Saturday's deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Pittsburgh synagogue shooting shakes the city’s iconic Jewish neighborhood

(JTA) — When a gunman entered The Tree of Life Synagogue and killed 11 worshipers Saturday, he also struck at the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community — the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill.

Squirrel Hill, in eastern Pittsburgh, has been the center of the city’s Jewish life since the turn of the 20th century, when wealthy Jewish families began settling there. While the Jewish communities of other cities have moved neighborhoods or migrated to the suburbs in the ensuing century-plus, Squirrel Hill and its environs have remained the home of Pittsburgh’s Jews.

Jeff Finkelstein, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, says the neighborhood’s sustained Jewish presence is a result of its proximity to local jobs and two universities nearby — Carnegie Mellon University and Chatham University. (The University of Pittsburgh isn’t far away, either.) Recently, he said, the area has also experienced an influx of Jewish millennials seeking urban life.

“It may be the last major urban-centered Jewish community outside of Manhattan in the country,” he said. “Over the years, this Jewish community has made serious investments into the Jewish institutions in Squirrel Hill.”

Today, the neighborhood is home to about 30 percent of the Pittsburgh area’s 50,000 Jews, or about 15,000 people, according to a 2017 study of the Jewish community. It’s home to more than a dozen synagogues across denominations. Tree of Life, which recently merged with another congregation, Or L’Simcha, is one of two Conservative synagogues in the neighborhood. There are also multiple Orthodox and Reform synagogues in the neighborhood, which is just over one square mile wide.

“It’s just really a special place with multi-generational family homes and a real nice sense of esprit de corps,” said Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom, a Reform congregation. “It’s really collaborative and supportive and rather unique.”

First responders stand outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a shooter opened fire Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, injuring multiple people, including police officers. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Like many Jewish neighborhoods, Squirrel Hill boasts an array of Jewish day schools (four), kosher restaurants (three) and other Jewish community organizations, according to a 2016 article in Shady Ave., a local magazine. In addition to a Holocaust museum, it’s home to a sculpture of a Star of David made of 6 million soda can tabs — a project of Community Day School, a local Jewish school, that took five years to complete.

Squirrel Hill’s centrality to Pittsburgh Jewry is also reflected in the numbers. While it’s home to 30 percent of Pittsburgh Jews overall, nearly half of the area’s Jewish children are being raised there. The neighborhood also ranks high in terms of synagogue membership, Jewish education and similar measures, according to the community study.

(It was also home to the children’s television icon Fred Rogers, the host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” who was not Jewish.)

But what sets Squirrel Hill apart, says Finkelstein, is the cohesiveness of its Jewish community. Its wide range of denominations and Jewish organizations, he said, make an effort to collaborate. At an all-night learning program this spring on the Jewish festival of Shavuot, 500 people from across the Jewish spectrum came to study together.

“There is a phrase in the Talmud that has always felt especially relevant to our community: Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh. All of Israel is responsible for one another,” wrote New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, who celebrated her bat mitzvah at Tree of Life, in a column Saturday. “For us that is not a lovely theory but a lived reality.”

That communal unity, Finkelstein said, has been in evidence in the wake of the shooting. In addition to a vigil Saturday night in Squirrel Hill, its Jewish organizations have mobilized. The local Jewish Community Center is acting as a base for the community and families of the victims, where rabbis from around the area have visited throughout the day. Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh is providing counseling, while the local Jewish federation is handling donations.

This is not the first time the community has experienced anti-Semitism recently. Last year, residents found stickers and business cards with white supremacist slogans around the neighborhood, featuring swastikas and messages like “It’s not illegal to be white… yet.”

But Finkelstein says Saturday’s events are the worst he’s ever experienced in his professional life.

“This is the one day I hoped would never happen,” he said. “It’s about these families — my heart goes out to them. Just watching their emotions has shaken my soul.”


  1. Members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish Community Tell Trump to Stay Away
    “For the past three years your words and your policies have emboldened a growing white nationalist movement. You yourself called the murderer evil, but yesterday’s violence is the direct culmination of your influence.

    Lynnette Lederman, the former synagogue president at Tree of Life…was unequivocal in naming Trump a persona non grata. “He is the purveyor of hate speech,” she said. “The hypocritical words that come from him tell me nothing.”

    What Did You Think Would Happen?

    “We cannot be surprised when someone puts white supremacy into a toaster and white hot hate and fear pops out.”

  2. Did you blame left-wing politicians and media for the assassination attempt against Trump, for the attempted GOP baseball massacre, for the ricin sent to the White House and Pentagon, and for the white powder sent to Don Jr.?

  3. Israel’s ambassador, Ron Dermer, is saying something a lot different (and probably a lot more rational), than what Lynnette Lederman is saying.

    Dermer told MSNBC that he hasn’t seen a non-Israeli world leader who more strongly condemned anti-Semitism than what Trump did after the tragedy.

    (He quoted Trump as saying, “Whoever seeks to destroy the Jewish people, we will destroy them.”)

  4. Take it up with the community of the victims. A good number of them want nothing to do with neo-nazi placating Trump. Fact is, white supremacists / antisemites flock to him.

    Trump definitely has played up to neo-nazis before.

    Op-Ed: Trump’s America is not a safe place for Jews

    Even Israel newspapers are calling out Trump’s blatant appeals to neo-nazis
    From Virginia to California, the Republican Party has an unprecedented amount of white supremacists and Neo-Nazis on the ballot this year.

    Fact is, you are going to find far more anti-semites, holocaust deniers, white supremacists and just plain bigots finding acceptance from Republicans.

  5. Take it up with Israel itself. Ambassador Dermer is no slouch, and won’t be easily ignored.

  6. Don’t be so hard on Dermer, he’s a tremendous slouch. (Caddyshack joke)

  7. My colleague from New Orleans, who used to work as a barkeeper at the local coffee room three days back bought a brand new Subaru Outback by working online 90 min a day, applying this page this page

  8. Poor dolt has to resort to whataboutism in response.

    Essentially admitting his views have far more in common with the neo-nazi who shot up the synagogue than “the left”.

    So far Trump loving neo-nazis have killed over 40 people since Trump took office. (30 here)

    “Leftists” you are trying to blame (as “both sides”) have a body count of zero.

  9. NOT BAD. NOT BAD AT ALL. Here are the numbers, the bottomline being:

    4 More Years, Trump!
    4 More Years, Trump!

    “91% of American Orthodox Jews gave Trump a ‘Satisfactory’ or ‘Very Satisfactory’ rating. Only 8.4% said that they were unhappy with the president’s performance. … 34 percent approved … [among] non-observant … American Jews … of Trump’s performance … More than three-quarters (76%) of Israelis believed the Trump administration to be solidly pro-Israel.”

    Source: Tzvi Lev, “Poll: Overwhelming amount of Orthodox Jews support Trump: A poll by US-based haredi magazine finds more than 90% of observant Jews support current president”, Israel National News, June 8, 2018.


    “Linking Trump to anti-Semitism is factually incorrect and morally wrong. You never heard it before he ran for office. He has a history of giving generously to Jewish charities, including the Anti-Defamation League, and he received the Jewish National Fund’s ‘Tree of Life’ award. This is a president whose high-profile daughter Ivanka is an observant modern Orthodox Jew and whose Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is a trusted White House envoy and personal adviser. President Trump also has longstanding ties to Israel’s conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and, unlike three of his Oval Office predecessors, made good on a pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.”

    Source: James S. Robbins, “Synagogue shooter hated Donald Trump and shows what real hatred, anti-Semitism looks like: Donald Trump is often blamed by the media as inspiring attacks and violence, but he is not anti-Semitic: The synagogue shooter shows what hate is”, USA Today, October 28, 2018.

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