‘Our hearts are broken’: Pittsburgh Jews grapple with shooting tragedy

‘Our hearts are broken’: Pittsburgh Jews grapple with shooting tragedy

After multiple fatalities in synagogue attack Saturday morning, community leaders talk of need for greater security measures

A havdalah vigil organized by high school students after the shooting drew thousands of people, Oct. 27, 2018. (Photo by Ron Kampeas/JTA)
A havdalah vigil organized by high school students after the shooting drew thousands of people, Oct. 27, 2018. (Photo by Ron Kampeas/JTA)

Michael Eisenberg was walking from his home in the leafy Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill Saturday morning to synagogue services to the Tree of Life Congregation, where he is a past president. Then his cellphone rang.

It was one of the synagogue’s vice presidents who works for the city’s emergency management. “He said he just got word that there’s an active shooter scene at Tree of Life,” Eisenberg told reporters. “‘Go up there and see if this is true.’ I only live a block away from the synagogue. I tried to get up Shady Avenue. There were police cars everywhere. There were guns drawn, rifles. It was surreal.”

Around 10 am local time, a gunman entered the Pittsburgh synagogue during Shabbat services and opened fire, killing multiple people and wounding three police officers. The suspect surrendered an hour later and was in custody by noon, according to the Associated Press.

Police warned neighborhood residents to stay indoors. The local broadcast station KDKA reported that officers confronted the gunman outside the synagogue. During the standoff, the suspect spoke multiple times about killing Jews, according to KDKA. “All Jews must die,” he yelled.

News of the tragedy immediately sparked national outrage. US President Donald Trump tweeted that the shooting was “far more devastating than originally thought.” He said he told the Pittsburgh mayor and Pennsylvania governor that “the Federal Government has been, and will be, with them all the way.”

Meanwhile, members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community were still processing the reality of a nightmare they long prepared for but never thought would happen.

Eisenberg told a televised press gaggle outside the synagogue that, when he was president of Tree of Life, they collaborated with federal and local law enforcement for the possibility of an attack.

“We were working with the Department of Homeland Security to evaluate exit routes,” he said, explaining that they installed doors that congregation attendees could easily leave from. “I just spoke to our maintenance person who was able to get out because the doors were easily opened from the inside to allow him to get out of the building.”

Yet not everyone, as of this writing, had gotten out of the building. CNN interviewed a woman who identified herself as Jennifer whose daughter was still inside.

“They said there is police in the house, so for them they are safe but they kept hearing gunfire and everything else,” she said. “I just want to get her.”

According to Jeff Finkelstein, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Squirrel Hill is the epicenter of the city’s Jewish life.

“Pittsburgh is very unique as far as its Jewish community goes,” he told a press gaggle on Saturday morning. “We just finished a community study and it shows that a little over 50 percent of the Jewish community of Greater Pittsburgh lives in or around this little neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. It’s a high concentration of the Jewish community. It makes it very special, actually.”

“Our hearts are broken,” the Federation posted on Facebook, saying it was making an exception and using social media on Shabbat.

Finkelstein, too, said that the Tree of Life Congregation, like others in the area, had done lots of training on active shooter scenarios.

“We’re going to figure out what we need to do as a community to pull together, and that will probably happen in the next 24 hours,” he said.

“Now I’m just sad,” he went on. “I don’t know what to tell you. My heart goes out to all these families. This should not be happening — period. It should not be happening in a synagogue. It should not be happening in a neighborhood here in Squirrel Hill.”

The Squirrel Hill building where the shooting occurred is home to three separate synagogues: Tree of Life, which is part of the Conservative movement; New Light Congregation, which is also Conservative; and Congregation Dor Hadash, which is Reconstructionist.

Eisenberg explained that on a Saturday morning, Tree of Life would generally have a service with roughly 40 people attending. New Light would have another in the basement with somewhere in between 30 and 40 attendees, and Dor Hadash would have roughly 15 people for a small service in the rabbi’s study room. “All of these are just off of the main entrance to the building,” he said.

While Tree of Life is practiced at preparing for a tragedy similar to what occurred Saturday morning, it really didn’t have any security measures in place to prevent it from happening.

“We’ve never had any threats,” Eisenberg explained. “I’ve always had a very watchful eye because of what’s going on and the current climate. You see these bombs being mailed across the country. Our security was really just that nobody’s ever tried to do anything. Like most religious institutions, we have an open door.”

Moving forward, he said, the community would have to install greater protections against violent attacks. “In light of this happening, it will be a catalyst for more security in the future, I’m sure, across all congregations, all religious institutions, because this is reality.”

The argument for assigning more resources to these efforts, he suggested, was no longer an abstract one.

“When I would get up as president in front of leadership, I would say this could happen,” he said. “Now it’s like, this did happen.” PJC
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