Community hosts vigil to mourn victims of Squirrel Hill synagogue massacre


Anna Bongardino | Visual Editor

Mourners embrace after the Saturday night vigil for the victims of the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue ends.

After an attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill left 11 people dead and six injured, members of the Pittsburgh community gathered at the intersection of Murray Avenue and Forbes Avenue Saturday night for a candlelight vigil to remember the victims.

A group of students from Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill organized the vigil in the time between the attack and sundown. Several, though they didn’t announce their names, spoke personally about the effect the attack had on their family, faith and community.

“No one really wants to be alone right now,” one girl said. “I know I don’t want to be alone right now.”

It was a long day in Squirrel Hill, one of America’s most deeply rooted Jewish communities. Morning services starting at 9:45 a.m. for the three congregations — Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash — that gather in the space on Wilkins Ave. The attack occurred before 10 a.m., and 20 minutes later, the suspect was in custody and being treated for gunshot wounds at Allegheny General Hospital.

[Read: 11 dead, 6 injured in shooting at Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill]

By evening, hundreds gathered to voice the emotions that coursed through their days.

“We are allowed to be angry. But we need to use that anger,” said another Allderdice student. “A man who was so hateful and anti-Semitic should not have been allowed to get his hands on a gun.”

The man, identified by authorities as Rob Bowers, 46, from Pittsburgh, showed a history of anti-semitic views on his social media accounts, including his account on Gab. Gab is a social media network much like Twitter, but which is often home to racism, sexism and conspiracy theories.

A light drizzle fell as mourners filled up Murray Avenue and spilled out onto Forbes Avenue. The crowd eventually grew large enough that police, who were directing traffic on Forbes, had to shut down the street.

Larry McKay, 21, played guitar for a group of Carnegie Mellon University students who sang “We Shall Overcome.”

“I came to express my condolences for the victims and their families, to mourn their loss, in the hopes to combat fear and xenophobia,” McKay, who lives in Squirrel Hill, said. “I came out to inspire peace.”

Anna Bongardino | Visual Editor
Roger Day and Abby Resnick of Squirrel Hill join in singing a Hebrew song at the vigil mourning the lives lost in the Squirrel Hill synagogue shooting Saturday morning. Day and Resnick are Jewish but they are not currently affiliated with a synagogue.

Volunteers walked around at the beginning of the vigil, distributing candles. Among them was Pitt professor Amanda Godley, who said her daughter Marina was one of the students who had planned the event. Some attendees had brought candles from home, and passed around lighters to allow others to light their own.

Elan Mizrahi celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Tree of Life 16 years ago. Tonight he and his father, Victor, came to the vigil on Murray to mourn the victims of the attack. Their family and friends in Israel have been calling them today — the tragedy is local, but it’s global too.

“I give a lot of credit to the group of students who took it upon themselves to plan this event so quickly,” Victor said.

“It’s a big Squirrel Hill family,” Elan added. “Everyone knows someone here.”

For some there, the vigil was also a Havdalah service — the ceremony that marks the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of “regular time” — and was marked by the singing of the Havdalah prayer.

“This Shabbat is different,” a woman who spoke at the vigil said. “Even though we move, technically, into regular time, there’s going to be nothing regular about it.”

As the vigil dispersed, a man in the crowd shouted out an encouragement to vote in next week’s election, and the crowd took up a chant of “Vote! Vote! Vote!”

A second press conference will be held Sunday at 9 a.m. at the Allegheny County Emergency Services headquarters in Point Breeze. In addition, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh will host an official interfaith community vigil at 5 p.m. at the Soldiers and Sailors memorial. Doors will open at 3 p.m.

“This isn’t something that can be talked about for a week or two weeks and then forgotten,” a speaker from Allderdice said. “Because I know Squirrel Hill won’t forget this.”

Contributed reporting by Emily Wolfe and Jon Kunitsky.