Close-knit, diverse Jewish hub numbed by slaughter
“My heart aches,” says Ilene Hurwitz Schwartz, 62, nursing a coffee in the heart of the neighborhood. She normally sleeps in Sundays, but got up early to find solace in talking to friends at a local cafe.
“It feels like after 9/11,” she said of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. “It just brings back too much pain.”
Her son went to pre-school at Tree of Life, where a man barged in and opened fire with an assault rifle and three handguns, killing 11 elderly people and wounding six others as they gathered on the Jewish sabbath.
Her husband had his bar mitzvah there and grew up in the neighborhood. The couple still live close by. Waiting for the names of the dead to be announced, she felt sure they would know at least some of the victims.
The shooting ruptured what was a sense of safety in leafy Squirrel Hill, where people of all backgrounds found a welcome among the mom and pop shops, detached homes and tree-lined streets, home to educated professionals close to the university in a vibrant part of the city.
While the area has strong Jewish roots, Jews, Christians and Muslims live side by side. Students have moved in, so have immigrants and a thriving Asian community. Chinese New Year is celebrated publicly. A gay and lesbian center found a welcome here not guaranteed elsewhere.
The community spans all religious and secular traditions. As the Jewish population in Pittsburgh has declined — moved away or simply become less religious — congregations had merged together.
– Sesame Street –
Muslims and Christians speak of attending services at synagogues to celebrate or commemorate life events with Jewish friends.
“I have a friend who visited from England who described it as being like Sesame Street,” laughs Alyia Paulding, 37. Asked, how she feels about the attack, her voice quivers: “Heartbroken.”
Paulding used to live in Squirrel Hill and while she has moved away, she mans a soap stall at the local farmer’s market. Normally thriving and bustling, this Sunday it’s almost deserted.
For Orthodox mother of eight, Rochel Tombosay, 42, the slaughter of people on the Jewish sabbath was confirmation of her worst nightmare after years of fears about rising anti-Semitism and lax security.
“My kids are scared,” she said. She runs a non-profit, and each week she and her husband run a market stall, selling made-to-order egg, cheese and vegetable wraps to customers.
“This hit our family very heavily, we didn’t sleep last night,” she says.
This week there’s only one thing on the menu — “The Solidarity Wrap” — everything included in a nod to the liberal, diverse nature of the neighborhood — with all proceeds donated to the Tree of Life.
A Greek food station at the other end of the market also announced that it was donating 50 percent of its profits to the synagogue.
– ‘The crazies’ –
“We’re all just walking around with heaviness in our heart. You can feel it. I feel like that everyone is dazed,” Tombosay said.
In an observant family that keeps Shabbat, her first inkling Saturday that something was wrong were the “excessive sirens.” When her sister-in-law, a fire fighter, came to the door her heart sank.
“I hate to say this, but as Jews we’re so used to this,” she said. “You never completely feel safe and so when I saw her I just knew in my heart something devastating was going on.”
Back at the coffee shop Hurwitz Schwartz, who runs a marketing company remembers interviewing Holocaust survivors after college, having studied the Nazi genocide of six million Jews during World War II.
“You can’t help but think could it happen again and this feels like again. A little of that and I don’t want it to be again.”
A few years ago when the paper published a story about Squirrel Hill being a Jewish hub, Hurwitz Schwartz was nervous, the public outing bringing back memories of anti-Semitism suffered elsewhere as a child.
“I thought ‘No, no, the crazies are going to know now where we live’,” she recalled. On Saturday those fears came home to roost.
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