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Heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community mourns victims of mass shooting

November 18, 2018

Adina Faeder and Nora Mostern walked along Squirrel Hill’s Murray Avenue on Saturday, looking for a place to set two bouquets of flowers.

Like many in the Pittsburgh neighborhood, the 15-year-olds grieved.

“You never think that anything like this is going to happen,” Faeder said. “There’s just no hate in this community.”

Faeder used to go to Tree of Life synagogue, where a gunman on Saturday morning killed 11 people and injured six others. She still knows a lot of people who attend services there. They’re all safe.

“But obviously there are people who aren’t OK,” Faeder said as she began to cry.

Squirrel Hill is one of one of the largest and most populous of Pittsburgh’s 90 neighborhoods. The walkable, nearly four square mile area is perched atop a hill and sandwiched between two of the city’s major parks. It is home to both life-long residents and students attending nearby universities.

Serene, tree-lined residential blocks with large, historic homes are located steps from the business district at Forbes and Murray avenues, which offers an international selection of bakeries, coffee shops and restaurants. There are dry cleaners, grocery stores and banks. There’s a movie theater and a library.

People from across the city, like Friendship neighborhood resident Joe Rauso, 34, pass through to run errands.

“I think we’re a resilient town,” Rauso said of the people of Pittsburgh. He hopes that they won’t let one person’s heinous actions overshadow the good in the city.

The neighborhood became Pittsburgh’s center of Jewish culture as Eastern European Jews moved into the neighborhood in the 1920s, according to an overview written by the Squirrel Hill Historical Society.

Businesses like kosher butcher shops and restaurants grew during the 1930s and ’40s, along with Jewish community groups, according to the historical society. Today, several congregations call synagogues in the neighborhood home. Squirrel Hill remains the focal point of Jewish life in Pittsburgh, according to the historical society.

Even on a chilly, rainy day like Saturday, sidewalks in the Squirrel Hill business district would typically be filled with shoppers and restaurant-goers.

“The mood has definitely been different,” Dannie Heltzel, 24, of Squirrel Hill, said Saturday. Heltzel manages Coffee Tree Roasters on Forbes Avenue.

The shop, located about a half mile from the synagogue, went into lockdown during the shooting, Heltzel said. They reopened when they heard that the scene was secured. Business picked up slightly throughout the afternoon, as many of the other shops along Forbes Avenue closed following the incident.

“I think no one really wants to stick around,” said Heltzel, who has lived in the neighborhood for about two years and said she is praying for the families impacted by the shooting. The shop catered for first responders that morning, Heltzel said.

“Hopefully, it makes people stand together and support the community,” she said.

Though the streets were quieter than usual, Larry McKay, 21, of Squirrel Hill, took to Forbes Avenue with song.

The Wilkinsburg native said he frequently plays his guitar and sings on the street. But he sang only one song on repeat Saturday: “We Shall Overcome,” a gospel hymn from 1900 which became a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

“Today, I came out with sort of a deeper purpose,” McKay said.

Passersby tossed bills into a guitar case--donations which will be given to families impacted by the shooting, McKay said--and others paused to listen. Some nodded. Others wept.

“I think the first reaction to something like this happening is to stay inside, mourn,” said Atticus Shaindlin, 20, a Carnegie Mellon University student from Northern California’s Bay Area.

He joined McKay to sing.

“I hope that students will be moved to band together,” Shaindlin said, adding that students--including those from out of town and abroad--have already started brainstorming ways to support the community they’re calling home for a few years.

Long-time Squirrel Hill residents like Stacey Wettstein, 68, are hoping for the same solidarity.

“We are really trying to band together,” said Wettstein, who was out running errands along an unusually quiet Murray Avenue Saturday afternoon. She has lived in the neighborhood for 32 years.

Everyone is upset and concerned, and it’s hard to know how the community will be impacted, she said.

“It’s not real yet,” she said.

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