Ask the residents who live there and they’ll tell you that Squirrel Hill – the site of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre – was almost like a big family.
“The community is knit so tight that one life affects thousands,” Jesse Rabner, a 17-year-old member of the congregation, told CNN on Monday. “It’s a norm to be Jewish in Squirrel Hill and it’s a loving and peaceful community.
“These 11 lives, it’s devastating for every single person that resides here.”
The neighborhood is central for Jewish life in Pittsburgh, housing over 26% of the city’s Jewish households – about 15,000 people, according to a study by the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Pittsburgh. Another 31% of Jewish households lie in the surrounding neighborhoods.
“I think we all get together across the board, whether it’s Orthodox or Hasidic or Conservative or Reform and we have wonderful Jewish communal organizations,” said Chuck Diamond, the former rabbi at Tree of Life who grew up and still lives in Squirrel Hill. “So it’s very vibrant and very active.”
It’s a tight-knit Jewish community
Squirrel Hill residents are much more active in Jewish life than residents of other neighborhoods. They’re more likely to attend Jewish programs than residents of other Pittsburgh neighborhoods – probably because the programs are all nearby. And they’re far more likely to access Jewish-focused culture.
“Squirrel Hill remains both the geographic and institutional center of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish community, and the Jewish community is growing there and in adjacent neighborhoods,” the study said.
And they’re more likely to know each other well.
Fred Rabner, a member of the Tree of Life congregation, says some of the victims were fixtures to the surrounding Jewish community, like brothers Cecil and David, who were among the 11 killed.
“Just to be from Squirrel Hill, you’d have to… know who David and Cecil are,” he said. “The people that are at the synagogue that early in the morning are people that are conservative, Jewish believing people that go there early in the morning and pray every Saturday.”
“To think that they were there in their most vulnerable moment and had something so heinous occur is just devastating to this community.”
And it will be scarred by the losses
Tree of Life rabbi Jeffrey Myers had 399 new emails Monday morning – many from the community, others from strangers. He’s determined to help the Tree of Life synagogue move past this tragedy.
“We are a Tree of Life and, as I’ve said to many, you can cut off a few branches from our tree, but Tree of Life has been in Pittsburgh for 154 years,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere. We will rebuild and we will be back stronger and better than ever.
“I will not let hate close down my building.”
He was there when the shooter entered the building, and he was the one that helped many members in his sanctuary escape. There were seven left behind.
“One of the eight was shot and she survived her wounds,” he said. “The other seven of my congregants were gunned down in my sanctuary.”
“I wish I could have done more,” he said. “I live with that and the sounds that are seared in my brain that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”
But it’s been targeted before
Squirrel Hill has experienced hate before.
Last year, anti-Semitic and white supremacist stickers and cards were found around the neighborhood on car windshields, park benches and playground slides.
“I thought this was a safe neighborhood,” said Mutlu Kesten, who lives nearby with her husband, Onur, and their 4-year-old daughter. The Muslim couple moved to Pittsburgh from Turkey in 2006. “It’s devastating.”
She said she walks her daughter to preschool near the synagogue every day and the family cherish their close ties with their Jewish neighbors and diverse community.
“Up until now, we were very happy to be here,” said her husband. “But these kinds of things are happening everywhere.”
Journalist Carmen Gentile contributed to this report.