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Squirrel Hill Residents Continue To Navigate The Surreal Scene In Their Neighborhood

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A makeshift memorial in front of Tree of Life honors the victims of a mass shooting.

From the corner of Forbes and Shady avenues in Squirrel Hill, you can spot a Chinese restaurant, a dentist, and a dry cleaner, as well as an all-Kosher Dunkin Donuts. It’s a busy commercial district which is full of foot traffic, even on a weekday morning.

“I really don’t think I would live anywhere else,” said Rabbi Sharyn Henry. She’s lived in the neighborhood since 1994, and helps lead Rodef Shalom in nearby Shadyside. It’s among the largest Jewish congregations in the city.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Rabbi Sharyn Henry of Rodef Shalom visits Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

One of the country’s largest Hasidic populations also calls this neighborhood home, and can be seen walking the streets in traditional garb. 

“Squirrel Hill has always had Jews here,” Henry said.

The neighborhood has pre-Civil War roots, and saw a large influx of eastern European Jews in the 1920s. While Jews were also settling in other neighborhoods like the Hill District and Stanton Heights, Henry said the most affluent came to Squirrel Hill.

A number of synagogues are concentrated in the area including Tree of Life. On Saturday, a gunman opened fire while three congregations were gathered for Shabbat services. Eleven people were killed.

Henry said she’s held off visiting the synagoguge located at Shady and Wilkins avenues. She leads a different congregation, and didn’t want to impose, although she was indirectly connected to many of the victims.

Walking through the neighborhood this week, she’s seen some unfamiliar sights, including groups of bike cops patrolling the streets.

“That’s a funeral car. I’m getting chills,” she said.

Heading up the tree-lined Wilkins Avenue, Henry recalled Saturday. She said she got word about the active shooter situation at 10:30 a.m., the same time Shabbat services were getting underway at Rodef Shalom, less than 2 miles away. Attendance was higher than usual because they were holding a baby-naming ceremony.

“We did tell the congregation what was going on,” she said. “A lot of them knew anyway because people were getting text messages.”

The barricades, which for a few days created a large perimeter around Tree of Life Synagogue, have been moved up. Heather Karpen, 30, was there handing out donuts. She works across the street at the Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh.

“I just had to be out here with family,” she said. “I had to do something.”

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Henry embraces a friend and congregant outside the Tree of Life.

Rabbi Henry knew practically everyone who visited the site to pay their respects Tuesday morning, including a visibly distraught Roberta Weissburg. She grew up in Squirrel Hill and owns a nearby business.

Among those killed Saturday was Jerry Robinowitz, who Weissburg said was her doctor for years. She said it’s difficult standing outside the synagogue where so many lost their lives.

“I’ve been in there 100 times,” she said. “I used to go with my friend Charlotte all the time. One of my biggest problems is trying to turn off my imagination and not think about their last moments.”

Weissburg wears a Mister Rogers trolly pin which her husband bought her for her birthday. A star of David hangs around her neck.

“My grandmother, this was her necklace,” said Weissburg. “And she came from Belarus when she was 9 years old. They had pogroms all around and she was always scared. She would say it could happen here too. I’d say ‘oh nanny don’t be silly.’ Well this happened on her birthday.”

Pogroms were organized massacres of specific ethnic groups, often Jews, in Russia and eastern Europe that took place over centuries.  

The crowd observing the scene in the morning was sparse. A young man rocked while reciting traditional prayer. Young people descended from both directions with fresh flowers to lay on the synagogue’s lawn. A woman left a single red rose in front of each of the 11 wooden stars of David bearing each of the victims’ names.

Henry caught the eye of a friend and congregant, who immediately broke down when she saw her Rabbi standing in front of the makeshift memorial.

The friend said she’d walked by Rodef Shalom earlier, where the first funeral was set to take place that day.

“The police car and hearse are there,” Henry’s friend said.

But Henry said this solemn and surreal scene won’t always be the case.

“I think we’ll be OK," she said. "I do."

She thinks there will likely be a heightened police presence in Squirrel Hill for a few weeks. Faith leaders have been holding security meetings and were briefed by the FBI over the weekend. Their long-term security plans are still being formulated.

But one day the police tape will be down. Barricades will be removed. And this tightly knit community will carry forward.

“This is how we respond,” said Rabbi Henry. “We respond with strength and take care of what we need to take care of. Burying the dead with respect and dignity. And not letting the hatred stop us.”