Pittsburgh — Since a deadly shooting rampage took 11 lives at a Conservative synagogue here on Saturday morning, government officials, dignitaries, Jewish leaders and volunteers have flocked to this city’s tight-knit Jewish community from across the country and around the world to offer comfort and support. But despite the widespread attention and concern, the vigil held on Sunday night at Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Hall on the University of Pittsburgh campus, not far from where the carnage took place, was all about Pittsburgh — tough, resilient Pittsburgh.
“We lost 11 of our neighbors,” said Mayor Bill Peduto, whose comments about eradicating anti-Semitism in the Pittsburgh area were met with a standing ovation at the two-hour interfaith event. The worshippers were gunned down by alleged shooter Robert Bowers, 46, who railed in social media posts about HIAS, the refugee resettlement organization, helping immigrants and reportedly told police after he was captured that he “wanted all Jews to die.”
“We’re here to make sure that those victims’ families have what Pittsburghers do,” the mayor said — “the understanding that we are all here for them.”
The program, attended by several thousand inside the hall and thousands more outside on the street, included a major showing of the city’s religious leadership, with dozens of clergy members of all faiths gathered on the stage to read Psalm 23. Wasi Mohamed, executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, said his community’s support for the Jewish community was simply “repaying the favor” for the support offered to the Muslim community in the wake of 2016 election, when many in his community felt unsafe. Mohamed began a crowd-funding campaign on Saturday that raised over $70,000 to support the victims’ families in less than 24 hours.
The emotional climax of the evening came when the rabbis of the three congregations targeted — Tree of Life Congregation, New Light Congregation and Congregation Dor Hadash — addressed the crowd. The three synagogues all meet in the Tree of Life building in the heavily Jewish Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, and each lost members in the shooting. “We lost three pillars of our community, three men who would give you the shirt of their backs,” said Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, spiritual leader of New Light. He and two other congregants from his synagogue who were present at the time of the attack survived; three were killed. Rabbi Perlman quoted Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” part of which was emblazoned on the wall behind him. “These dead shall not have died in vain,” he said to a standing ovation.
We lost three pillars of our community, three men who would give you the shirt of their backs.
Rabbi Cheryl Klein of Dor Hadash read the Hebrew names of those from her synagogue still fighting for their lives in the hospital. “Our Ner Tamid, our Eternal Light, has been dimmed,” she said. “My holy place has been defiled,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Congregation Tree of Life. “We will rebuild.”
Community members lingered after the event, hugging friends and neighbors and checking for updates on funeral plans. “The idea that this could have happened in our wonderful Squirrel Hill is so beyond what any of us could ever imagine,” Lynne Snyderman, a Squirrel Hill native who still lives in her childhood home and attended the event with her husband, told The Jewish Week. “Pittsburgh will survive and the Jewish community will survive, but Squirrel Hill will never be the same.”
For many, the event was the beginning of a long process of healing. “I really appreciate everyone speaking up and speaking out,” said Ally Solomon, who grew up in Pittsburgh’s East End. “People have just touched my arm and said, hey are you OK.”
“It was inspiring to stand up there and see Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Hall completely full with a standing-room-only crowd and then even more so to hear at the end that there were thousands of people outside all the way back to the main street,” said Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
“Part of what we do is just keep carrying on, and show strength and show determination,” said Rabbi Sharyn Henry of Congregation Rodef Sholom. “I’m going to go to all the funerals that I can because they weren’t my congregants, but they are my people.”
Among the supporters from out of town were Pittsburgh natives who came home to be with the community. Jeffrey Solomon, who grew up in Squirrel Hill and now lives in New York, came in for the day to attend the vigil and plans to come back for the funerals of those he knew. Solomon was part of a UJA-Federation of New York contingent that traveled to Pittsburgh to offer support, which included the charity’s CEO, Eric Goldstein, and its president, Jeffrey Shoenfeld, and its executive vice president, Mark Medin.
“My parents could have been there, and it could have been me,” said Solomon, speaking of his friends who lost parents in the shooting. “And in many ways I feel like it is.”
More coverage on the Pittsburgh shooting here.