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A people raised in violence had found peace in Squirrel Hill before synagogue mass shooting

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PITTSBURGH – It has become a refrain every time something like this happens. 

“I never expected something like this happening here,” Greg Stalfa said as he sipped a beer at the Squirrel Hill Café, a neighborhood bar just a few blocks where something like this happened. 

Something like this was the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue Saturday morning that left 11 dead and six wounded – including four police officers. The Anti-Defamation League believes this to be the deadliest attack on Jews in the nation’s history.

“This is a great neighborhood,” said Stalfa, a supervisor with the state Department of Labor and Industry who grew up on its tree-lined streets.  

Mark Esper, a waiter sitting one stool down, said, “This is probably the safest neighborhood in Pittsburgh. You could lie down on the sidewalk at 2 o’clock in the morning and nothing would happen to you.” 

Across Forbes Avenue from the café, thousands gathered to mourn and stand vigil, holding candles, praying, singing, weeping, consoling one another. 

Story continues after these videos from Pittsburgh

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Ruth Fauman-Fichman, a retired archaeologist, hugged a woman wearing a hijab, who consoled her by saying how shocking the mass shooting was and how it wasn’t the kind of thing you expected to happen here. 

Fauman-Fichman, whose mother escaped Nazi Germany in 1939 and whose 93-year-old aunt is a Holocaust survivor, responded, “It can happen anywhere. It happens every day.” 

The Squirrel Hill neighborhood

Squirrel Hill, just east of downtown Pittsburgh, is believed to have been named by in recognition of the abundance of gray squirrels in the area.

The neighborhood evolved into one of the city’s more affluent sections, the streets lined with single-family homes. Carnegie Mellon and Chatham universities are located there and many of the faculty live in the neighborhood. Fred Rogers, Mister Rogers, the soft-spoken voice of tolerance, love and understanding, called the neighborhood home.  

Squirrel Hill’s identity developed in the 1920s when Eastern European Jews moved into the neighborhood, which soon developed into the city’s center of Jewish culture. Half of Pittsburgh’s Jewish population – about 50,000 people – lives in the neighborhood. It is, many residents said, a tight-knit community. 

The Tree of Life Synagogue has long been at the center of the neighborhood’s religious and cultural life, its history dating to the late 1800s.  

“Traditionally, the neighborhood has been a Jewish enclave,” said David Tessitor, who was walking a friend’s greyhound, Chelsea, by the synagogue Saturday evening. “But it’s very diverse.” 

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At about 10 a.m. Saturday, he was walking the dog past Tree of Life, shortly before the time police said Robert Bowers, a 46-year-old resident of Baldwin Borough, south of Pittsburgh, burst into the synagogue during a baby-naming ceremony and opened fire.  

Tessitor said, “The more it happens, the more it happens.” He believes that hatred and violence have always been with us, but that our current culture, one in which the president of the United States denounces people and cozies up to white nationalists, “sets a very scary tone.” 

Still, Tessitor, a community organizer and political activist, said, “This kind of thing just doesn’t happen here.” 

An earlier hate crime in Squirrel Hill

Anti-Semitic violence has occurred in Squirrel Hill. On April 17, 1986, a 24-year-old rabbinical student from Toronto, Neal Rosenblum, was shot five times and killed while walking to his in-laws home on Shady Avenue. He had been in town only seven hours when he was gunned down. Steven Tielsch of Penn Hills was arrested in 2000 and eventually convicted of third-degree murder in what prosecutors described as a hate crime. 

Many in Squirrel Hill’s Jewish community still remember Rosenblum’s murder. Now, though, they have a more terrible memory to take its place.

 ‘…because he hates Jews.’

David Knoll, a 40-year-old real estate broker, was walking down the street from the synagogue, talking to his 9-year-old son, trying to explain to the child what was happening, why people were crying. 

Earlier Saturday, Knoll and his family had been locked down in the synagogue while police sought the gunman and secured the neighborhood. It was scary for Knoll. It’s hard to imagine how scary it was for his son. 

“You have to explain that there are bad people out there,” Knoll said. “It doesn’t happen every day and there are many more good people out there than bad people.” 

He took a breath.  

“It’s terrifying,” said Knoll, whose grandparents lost most of their family in the Holocaust. “It’s not the first time it’s happened in our history, going back thousands of years. But it’s not just a Jewish thing. Some people have to hate other people, whether it’s Jews, or Muslims, or African-Americans. The man who did this did this because he hates Jews. He’s not the first and, unfortunately, he won’t be the last.” 

Memories of a Detroit synagogue shooting 

The intersection of Forbes and Murray, outside the Jewish Community Center and across Murray from the Sixth Presbyterian Church, was jammed, people of all faiths gathering in a chilly drizzle to stand vigil. Tammy Thompson, wearing a traditional hijab of her Muslim faith, embraced her friends. “I have a lot of friends in the community,” said Thompson, who runs an anti-poverty program in the city. “These people are like my family.” 

She hugged a friend and said, “Anything that hurts one of us, hurts all of us.”  

Fauman-Fichman told the story of Rabbi Morris Adler. She grew up in Detroit and there was a deeply disturbed young man who lived across the street. Her father tried to get him help. The rabbi tried to counsel him. On Feb. 12, 1966, the young man, Richard Wishnetsky, then 23, walked into Temple Sha’arey Zedek and in front of about 1,000 worshipers, shot the rabbi five times before turning the gun on himself. 

Fauman-Fichman was 9-years-old when it happened.  

“Violence in a synagogue is not anything unusual to me,” she said. 

A memorial at Tree of Life 

Hours later, in front of the Tree of Life, 14 bouquets of flowers had been placed along a row of hedges.  

Across the street, a group of Orthodox rabbis prayed. 

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