‘I’m just torn apart:’ Pittsburgh’s Jewish community in shock after 11 killed in synagogue shooting

A shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Pittsburgh, Pa., region of Squirrel Hill sent shock waves through the region’s tight-knit Jewish community.

A suspect opened fire Saturday morning during a weekly Shabbat service at the conservative Jewish synagogue, killing at least 11 attendees and wounding six people, including four officers. More casualties are expected. Pittsburgh authorities tweeted at approximately 10:30 a.m. EST on Saturday that they were handling an active shooter situation near Wilkins and Shady avenues, though the suspect has since been detained.

The suspect was later identified as Robert Bowers.

At the time of the shooting, the synagogue was full.

Jeff Finkelstein, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told CNN that a typical Saturday morning service would house between 50 and 60 people. He added that the Squirrel Hill area is home to about half of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. The synagogue was founded over 150 years ago.

Another report published by the Post-Gazette this past February cited Squirrel Hill’s Jewish community as “growing.” The survey found that almost 50,000 members of the Jewish community live in Squirrel Hill and the surrounding region of Allegheny County. That’s a 17 per cent increase from 2002.

Following reports of the incident, current and former community members posted notes on the Tree of Life Facebook page. Many of the comments were left under a post about a Halloween event called “Magic and Superstition,” which took place at the synagogue Friday evening.

Videos on the page depict singing groups and community events. One clip showed a rabbi who worked at the synagogue receiving an award from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

One young Squirrel Hill resident told reporters at the scene that they had several friends who lived close to the synagogue.

“It’s just been a whole day of getting in contact with people and just trying to figure out which of my friends go to that synagogue and who lives nearby,” the teen explained as their mother stood behind them.

The resident went on to tell reporters that they’d attended daycare at Tree of Life when they were younger, specifically on the third floor of the building, where the shooter was first detained by police.

Public figures who once called the town home, including Pittsburgh Steelers NFL player Cam Heyward, also took to Twitter to share their grief.

An ESPN director also recalled his time in the Squirrel Hill community, urging members of the community to stay safe.

Squirrel Hill is home to Carnegie Mellon University — which was put on lockdown during the shooting — and Chatham University. The Visit Pittsburgh website refers to the neighbourhood as family-oriented and laid-back.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh posted on Facebook Saturday afternoon, offering assistance to those impacted by the shooting.

A former spiritual leader with the synagogue, Rabbi Chuck Diamond, told CBS and NBC that he was shocked upon receiving calls that there’d been a shooting in the building.

“It was terrifying to me. One, I first got the call and then I started getting calls right after that, and I’m just torn apart,” he said.

This past July, the synagogue’s Rabbi Jeffrey Myers posted a chilling note to the Tree of Life’s website about the media’s reports on mass shootings across the United States and lamenting the prevalence of gun violence across the country.

“Unless there is a dramatic turnaround in the midterm elections, I fear that the status quo will remain unchanged, and school shootings will resume,” he wrote.

“I shouldn’t have to include in my daily morning prayers that God should watch over my wife and daughter, both teachers, and keep them safe.  Where are our leaders?”

According to local media, deputies and law enforcement will increase their presence around the Tree of Life synagogue in the wake of this event.

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