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Squirrel Hill, Where Synagogue Shooting Happened, Is Hub Of Jewish Life In Pittsburgh


If you walk through Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood, you can still see visible signs of the massacre that happened at the Tree of Life synagogue five days ago. Virginia Alvino Young from member station WESA spent some time in Squirrel Hill, the heart of Jewish life in the city.

VIRGINIA ALVINO YOUNG, BYLINE: Rabbi Sharyn Henry of congregation Rodef Shalom lives in the heart of Squirrel Hill just a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh. The commercial stretch of the neighborhood is a couple of blocks up.

SHARYN HENRY: So there's Dunkin' Donuts, which is kosher.

ALVINO YOUNG: Is that all Dunkin' Donuts?

HENRY: No. Just this one. We're going this way.

ALVINO YOUNG: From this corner, you can spot How Lee's Chinese restaurant, a dentist and a dry cleaner. The yeshiva orthodox schools and the mikvah, or ritual Jewish bath, are down the street.

HENRY: I really don't think I would ever live anywhere else.

ALVINO YOUNG: This is also home to one of the country's largest Hasidic populations. They can be seen walking the streets in traditional garb.

HENRY: This one, Squirrel Hill, has always had Jews here.

ALVINO YOUNG: The neighborhood has pre-Civil War roots and saw a large influx of Eastern European Jews in the 1920s.

HENRY: I have not been to Tree of Life. Do you want to go?

ALVINO YOUNG: Rabbi Henry has held off visiting the Tree of Life synagogue where 11 people were killed. She leads a different congregation and says she didn't want to impose.

HENRY: That's a funeral car. I'm getting chills.

ALVINO YOUNG: Heading up the tree-lined Wilkins Avenue, Henry recalls Saturday. She got word about the active shooter situation the same time her Shabbat services were starting less than two miles away. They were holding a baby-naming ceremony so attendance was higher than usual.

HENRY: We did tell the congregation what was going on. A lot of them knew, anyway, because people were getting text messages. You could tell.

ALVINO YOUNG: Around Tree of Life, some areas that had been blocked off by barricades are now open. Heather Karpen (ph) is there. She works across the street and came over to hand out doughnuts to mourners.

HEATHER KARPEN: Do you want one? You sure?

HENRY: Rabbi Henry knows almost everyone here to pay their respects, including Roberta Weissberg, who owns a nearby business. Among those killed Saturday was Jerry Rabinowitz, who was Weissberg's long-time doctor. She says it's hard to be here.

ROBERTA WEISSBERG: I've been in there a hundred times.

HENRY: Right.

WEISSBERG: I used to go with my friend, Charlotte, all the time. And one of my biggest problems is trying to turn off my imagination and not think about...

HENRY: What happened.

WEISSBERG: ...What their last moments were.

HENRY: I agree.

ALVINO YOUNG: Weissberg wears a Mr. Rogers pin, which her husband bought her for her birthday. A Star of David hangs around her neck.

WEISSBERG: My grandmother, this was her necklace. She came from Belarus when she was 9 years old, and they had pogroms all around and she was always scared. And she used to say, it can happen here, too. And I would say, oh, Nanny, don't be silly. Don't be silly. Well, it was on her birthday. This happened on her birthday.

ALVINO YOUNG: At the scene, a young man rocks while reciting traditional prayer. A woman leaves a single red rose in front of each of the 11 wooden Stars of David bearing each of the victims' names. Henry catches the eye of a friend and congregant who immediately breaks down when she sees her rabbi standing in front of the makeshift memorial.

HENRY: Is this your first time here?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah. I just walked by.

ALVINO YOUNG: Her friend says she'd walked by Rodef Shalom earlier, where the first funeral was set to take place that day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Police cars and a hearse are there.

ALVINO YOUNG: Henry says this solemn and surreal scene won't last forever.

HENRY: I think we'll be OK. I do.

ALVINO YOUNG: There will likely be a heightened police presence in the neighborhood for a few weeks, but one day, the yellow tape will be taken down. Barricades will be removed.

HENRY: This is how we respond. 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.

ALVINO YOUNG: And it's that spirit and community that makes Rabbi Sharyn Henry more grateful than ever to live in Squirrel Hill. For NPR News, I'm Virginia Alvino Young in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Virginia Alvino