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Hundreds from all faiths gather in front of Squirrel Hill synagogue to mourn, reflect, stand as one

November 27, 2018

A week to the minute after people fled from Tree of Life Congregation as a gunman opened fire on congregants inside, a crowd gathered outside the place of worship at the corner of Wilkins and Shady avenues in Squirrel Hill.

They came Saturday for a service led by former Tree of Life Rabbi Chuck Diamond. They came not only for prayer, but also to hold and comfort each other.

They came to honor the 11 people who died the morning of Oct. 27.

More than 100 people attended the outdoor service, some holding umbrellas as a light rain fell -- much like it did a week ago. Maple trees glowed red and orange, stray leaves mixing with the mounds of flowers, stones, candles, cards, photographs and other mementos left around a row of 11 markers, each bearing the name of one of the victims that were hand-painted across a Star of David.

Police vehicles and yellow tape blocked Wilkins Avenue, where a mobile command truck is still parked. Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert stood in the intersection, directing traffic and helping pedestrians.

“As tough as it is, we will move forward,” Diamond said. “This is a place, a building for so many people that stood for joy. Now, it is stained.”

In time, the Tree of Life needs to reclaim its standing as a place of joy -- one that hosts weddings, bar mitzvahs, bris and other special ceremonies.

The Jewish tradition of breaking a glass at a wedding ceremony is meant to remember the pain, loss and tragedies of the Jewish people while celebrating a happy occasion, Diamond said.

“For a moment, we remember the tragedy,” Diamond said. “But we have to remember it was and will be a place for joy. We have to break the glass.”

The 45-minute service was not a traditional Shabbat service, Diamond said. Instead, it was intended for people who felt a need to be there, or who didn’t have a synagogue or a rabbi or who weren’t Jewish.

Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, begins Friday at sundown and ends Saturday evening. It is a time to pray and reflect, and a break from the chaos of the week.

Congregation Beth Shalom, located less than a mile from Tree of Light Congregation on Beacon Street in Squirrel Hill, invited members of the congregations impacted by the Oct. 27 shooting -- Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash -- to celebrate Shabbat services together Saturday.

Police officers and security guards were posted around the building as congregants arrived, and Beth Shalom will be making changes to security procedures and facilities in the future, according to a message posted to the congregation’s website.

Despite the added security, signs of warmth and unity were everywhere: Hundreds packed the Beth Shalom sanctuary Saturday morning, trickling in as services started at 9:30 a.m. Clutching prayer books, they embraced. Volunteers helped people find seats, greeting them with a welcoming “Shabbat Shalom,” a peaceful sabbath.

Members of the congregations housed at Tree of Life Congregation were seated near the front and helped to lead the services. Together, they prayed for healing. Their voices filled the sanctuary in song.

Speaking to those gathered, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life Congregation highlighted the examples of goodness, kindness and respect in Saturday’s readings.

“There’s no hate in this portion,” he said of the texts, encouraging all those listening that they have the capacity to choose the path of good.

Myers was at Tree of Life Congregation on Oct. 27 when the gunman opened fire on Saturday Shabbat services. He witnessed the terror and the destruction.

He has been back inside Tree of Life three times since the shooting, and accompanied President Donald Trump on a visit to the building -- most of it a crime scene, accessible only by the FBI, Myers said -- on Tuesday afternoon.

“You don’t want to go in there,” Myers said.

He welcomed the president as a guest this week, introducing Trump to the Tree of Life sanctuary, which seats 1,200 people. Together, they observed the space and lit candles in memory of the 11 souls that were lost.

Myers said that he used the opportunity and privilege to speak to the president to repeat his call for an end to hate speech -- A call directed at elected officials.

“You can’t fight any hate with more hate,” Myers said he told the president.

He told Trump that hateful speech leads to hateful action.

“There’s only one ZIP code that doesn’t know it,” Myers said. “And that’s in Washington, D.C.”

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