Mor Harchol-Balter woke Saturday to the sound of sirens. This isn’t uncommon in her Squirrel Hill neighborhood, with the Zone 4 police station and No. 18 fire house situated across the street from her home on the corner of Northumberland and Murray.
“It was like I was in a dream,” Harchol-Balter said. “We’re used to sirens. But it was siren after siren after siren. This didn’t seem normal. We went to look out the window and saw 50 SWAT running with guns drawn. It was like a movie.”
No one could have been prepared for the news that followed: A gunman had shot and killed 11 people and wounded six others, including four police officers, Saturday morning inside the Tree of Life synagogue.
That a sleepy neighborhood celebrating Shabbat became the scene of a deadly attack on a dreary morning left residents in a state of shock.
“This is the safest neighborhood there is,” said Harchol-Balter, who is Jewish and has lived here for two decades with her husband, Andrew Young, and where they raised a son. “This is such a Jewish neighborhood…”
That made Squirrel Hill the obvious target for an anti-Semitic extremist to commit a heinous act of violence during a baby-naming ceremony at Tree of Life Congregation. The shooting suspect has been identified by the FBI as Robert Bowers, 46, of Baldwin, who had a history of posting anti-Semitic messages on social media sites but no prior criminal record.
The crime scene was described as “very horrific” by Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich, who choked back tears as he called it “one of the worst I’ve seen – and I’ve been to some plane crashes.”
If the flashing lights blocking traffic from crossing Northumberland at Murray and Shady avenues didn’t signal the strength of the police presence, the sight of dozens of SWAT members walking through single file in camouflage combat gear certainly did.
“You see hundreds,” said Jacob Pelled, an Orthodox Jew who watched the scene from his front porch on Shady Avenue. “I just wish they were here a few hours before, you know.”
Hissrich left us with these haunting words: “These incidents usually occur in other cities. Today, the nightmare has hit home in the city of Pittsburgh.”
Squirrel Hill resident Brad Berger was shaken that the nightmare occurred in his neighborhood, in the same basement at Tree of Life where his daughter’s baby-naming ceremony was held seven years ago.
“It’s tough not knowing who was in there. It’s awful, whether you know them or don’t know them,” Berger said of the victims, noting that the shooting forced him to have a difficult conversation with his young children. “They heard more than I wished. They’d heard what the shooter (reportedly) was saying. I had to explain why hate exists. … “You can’t fathom that someone would do something like that, that someone could intentionally do such devastation.”
Neither could Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik, who had just delivered Holy Communion for a Gathering of Catholic Women at the Hyatt Regency Pittsburgh International Airport when word of the Squirrel Hill synagogue shooting was whispered into his ear.
“We paused for 10 minutes in total silence to pray for all that is going on,” Zubik said. “Your heart just aches for their pain.”
Zubik stopped to visit Rabbi Bisno at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside, then walked through the Squirrel Hill neighborhood to show his support. Zubik urged all faiths to come together in solidarity.
“I think there’s something that draws our hearts together,” Zubik said. “We have to be there for each other. We live in a culture so toxic, with so much intolerance, that we have to look for ways to tear that wall down. It’s a stark reminder to turn to God and join our hands and hearts.”
Berger couldn’t help but comment on the “creepy” feeling of the empty city streets, comparing it to a ghost town. This was hours after the shooting, hours before a prayer vigil drew more than a thousand mourners to the heart of Squirrel Hill’s business district.
“Anyone that thinks they’re immune from the world’s troubles … nobody’s immune,” Berger said, as helicopters hovered above. “It’s not a perceived fear. It’s a real fear.”
That fear was realized Saturday at a synagogue in Squirrel Hill, where residents couldn’t help but wonder about their sense of security after shots were fired and sirens sounded and the city’s Jewish neighborhood no longer felt like the safest neighborhood.