It’s often been said that Pittsburgh feels more like a small town than a city. Residents of the various neighborhoods and bordering towns speak of the closeness they feel for one another and hold onto their roots when moving away from the region. It’s one of the attributes that helps make the city feel, at times, more a part of the Midwest than the Northeast.
Nowhere is that sentiment truer than for the Jewish community. The tight-knit neighborhood of Squirrel Hill is the center of Jewish life in Pittsburgh and a reminder of a time when each city had a Jewish block or street. The massacre at the Tree of Life building shook the community because everyone in Squirrel Hill was affected.
Outside of Squirrel Hill, the entire city mourned with the community. The South Hills, stretching from Dormont to Peters Township in Washington County, has the highest number of Jews living in the suburbs. The tragedy was felt immediately, and the impact of that day continues to reverberate throughout the region.
“We found that in the days and weeks and months after the tragedy, there was an increased sense of community that extended far beyond simply the Jewish families living here,” explained South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh director Rob Goodman. “Both Jewish and non-Jewish residents came together trying to make sense of the tragedy. Attendance increased dramatically not just at services but at most community events as well.”
“We’ve always been tight-knit,” he continued “but the support, again not just from the Jewish community but from the entire South Hills, continues to be felt. There are more smiles and more hugs, more handshakes and more understanding. We found strength in community. “
Every Jewish community in Western Pennsylvania has been affected in some way by the terrorist attack and continues to try and make sense of what it means for their city.
Leonard Sarko is the rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg. He said that the attack is on the minds of those at his synagogue.
“They talk about it more and more as the date gets closer. From an emotional standpoint, everyone in Greensburg feels it.”
Rabbi Robert Morais of Temple Anshe Hesed in Erie believes that proximity matters in tragedies like the Oct. 27 shooting. “The closer you are the more connected and impactful it is. If you live in Pittsburgh it’s huge; in Pennsylvania it’s big; if you live in Utah it’s tragic but there may be no connection.”
Morais said that people in Erie felt the attack “hit home. People felt very connected to it.” Over 300 people attended services after the shooting. “You couldn’t move. The building had just opened and was overwhelmed.”
Those in attendance weren’t only from the Jewish community. Virtually every city in Western Pennsylvania was supported in some way by their non-Jewish neighbors. In fact, for many of these cities, that have seen the Jewish population decrease, it was the addition of Christians and Muslims at their synagogues that filled the buildings.
Larry Rosenberg, president of Beth Sholom Congregation in Johnstown recalled “we had 225 people attend” a service on the Sunday following the shooting. “Most of them were gentiles from the Johnstown, Cambria County, Somerset community. Two priests from a local Catholic church showed up and gave very moving talks.”
Greater Altoona Jewish Federation Executive Director William Wallen remembered a letter written by a local evangelical Christian published in The Altoona Mirror. In it, the author recounted going to Pittsburgh and praying with a rabbi. “He wrote that Christians need to support the Jewish community. In essence, he said, the Jews are our friends and relatives.”
Wallen echoed the feelings of those in other communities that local law enforcement has helped as each synagogue and building deals with the need for added security. Those needs come with an increased cost and each congregation and organization is attempting to balance safety with budgets.
Sarko pointed out that while security upgrades were important, it was just as important to remain vigilant and reevaluate what their future needs would be.
“The last shooting in Germany didn’t happen in a synagogue. The shooter couldn’t get inside because it was locked, so he ended up shooting people outside. I think as a society we’re grappling with the issue and will continue to into the future.”
While Johnstown, Erie and Altoona are separated from Pittsburgh by more than a simple bridge or tunnel, there are connections that run deep between the various cities.
Wallen highlighted the connection. “We have residents that grew up in Pittsburgh and have personal connections to Tree of Life. Many of our people shop in Squirrel Hill to buy kosher meat. There are intimate connections between our community and Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.”
The Johnstown synagogue Rosenberg is a part of “feels very connected to Pittsburgh. We have members who have sisters or brothers that are members of the Pittsburgh congregations. We have people with friends there. We are all part of the Greater Pittsburgh community. It’s not down the road on 22 and get off the Squirrel Hill exit. Our heart goes out, we are part of you.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at drullo@