Sewickley area mourns, supports their neighbors in Squirrel Hill after shootings

November 24, 2018

Amalia Lillios is one of the helpers.

The 25-year-old Ambridge resident works at the Barberry shop on Beaver Street in Sewickley.

Lillios’ eyes welled with tears as she explained why she made the small A-frame sign outside the shop.

“Pittsburgh. Stronger than Hate. Won’t you be my neighbor?” it says.

She made the sign in the aftermath of the Oct. 27 shooting at Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill that left 11 people dead in the close-knit community that was children’s television icon Fred Rogers’ real neighborhood.

“You don’t think it’s going to happen anywhere - especially not Mr. Rogers’ own neighborhood,” Lillios said.

Much can be learned from Rogers and his lifelong message of love and acceptance, she said.

“Everyone needs to be reminded we’re all neighbors,” Lillios said.

She finds comfort in another of Rogers’ teachings that’s regularly invoked in times like these, imploring people to “look for the helpers” in such situations.

“I try to be a helper,” Lillios said.

A couple doors from Barberry, a similar sign is outside the Penguin Bookshop: “Our hearts are with our Squirrel Hill neighbors. Shalom.”

“It’s hard to know what to say or do to express our sadness with what happened,” said the bookstore’s owner, Susan Hans O’Connor of Sewickley. “We just wanted our friends in Squirrel Hill and our Jewish friends from all over to know we stand with them. Our hearts are broken.”

The sign is a small symbol that the bookstore is a place where conversation, community and empathy rule, she said.

“We’re committed to being good friends to our neighbors and against hate in any form,” Hans O’Connor said.

Gestures like those are among many that have been felt by the regional Jewish community, Temple Beth Samuel Director of Programming and Operations Barbara Wilson said.

About a third of the the Ambridge congregation’s membership lives in the Sewickley area.

“We’ve have a lot of local leaders reach out to us,” Wilson said. “We’ve had people leave flowers and notes on our front steps. We’re feeling the love right now.”

The Jewish community in the region is such that it’s hard not to know someone - or at least know someone who knows someone - who was a part of the Tree of Life Congregation, Wilson said.

“There’s probably nobody in the local Jewish community who didn’t have a connection,” she said.

In addition to mourning with their friends in faith, Temple Beth Samuel’s members have told Wilson about concerns they have for their own safety, she said.

Those concerns were present even before the shooting, and Temple Beth Samuel has worked for more than a year to improve its security for the safety of its membership, she said.

The temple has alarms, video-monitoring systems and good lighting outside, she said. During Jewish High Holy it employs a police officer to secure the building.

Those efforts will be ramped up further, Wilson said. The Ambridge police have increased patrols in the area and the department has been “extremely supportive,” she said.

Safety concerns need to be balanced with people’s need to worship, she said.

After the shooting Saturday, she took calls asking if the Sunday school offerings for children would be canceled. It wasn’t.

Instead, they “had very honest talk” with the kids, and the Ambridge police were there to introduce themselves and assuage any fears, Wilson said.

“I do feel we do a good job of keeping everyone safe,” she said, although concerns members have now are legitimate.

“I think people are saddened, but I don’t think they’re super shocked,” she said because shootings have happened with such regularity nationwide.

“If I cancel a Sunday school. If I cancel a service. Then they’ve won,” Wilson said.

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