The mass shooting in our backyard: 11 killed in hate crime at Squirrel Hill Synagogue

Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor

On the morning of Saturday, Oct. 27, a gunman walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue and opened fire. 11 people were killed, making this possibly the deadliest attack motivated by anti-Semitism in the history of the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Tree of Life is located on the corner of Wilkins and Shady Avenue, just one mile from Carnegie Mellon campus. Members of the Carnegie Mellon community were shocked to see the cameras of the world pointed at Pittsburgh, the place they call home. To many, the reality of this tragedy is just beginning to sink in.

At 9:55 a.m., police and FBI from multiple zones and jurisdictions rushed to the scene. Two police officers and two SWAT officers were hit by bullets. They are in stable condition.

About an hour later, the gunman surrendered after being hit in a shootout with the police. The suspect has been identified as Robert Bowers, a 46-year-old white male who is a resident of Pittsburgh. He was armed with an AR-15 and three handguns. It is believed he acted alone. The Director of Pittsburgh Public Safety, Wandell Hirsh, emphasized at a briefing that, “At this time there appears to be no active threat to the community.”

In a Saturday news briefing, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf confirmed that the shooting is being investigated by the FBI as a hate crime. Some witnesses reported that the gunman shouted “All Jews must die” before opening fire. Bowers posted violent anti-Semitic rhetoric on, directing hate at Jewish organizations such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a group that works to resettle refugees.

Governor Wolf told Pennsylvanians after the attack that “Any attack against a community of faith in Pennsylvania is an attack against every community of faith in Pennsylvania.”

Robert Jones of the FBI asked for the public’s patience: “In the next weeks, we will look at every aspect of the suspect’s life.” He added that this was the “most horrifying” crime scene he’s seen in his 22 years of service.

Tree of Life Synagogue belongs to the Conservative Movement of Judaism and is located in the historically Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, which borders the Carnegie Mellon campus. Squirrel Hill is home to significant Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox congregations, and Tree of Life was founded 150 years ago.

A member of the Carnegie Mellon community was among the worshipers slain in the shooting. Joyce Feinberg was the spouse of Stephen E. Fienberg, a professor of Statistics and Social Science at Carnegie Mellon, who passed away in Dec. 2016. Ms. Fienberg had been attending services at Tree of Life every morning for over a year to mourn her late husband.

Newly-inaugurated University President Farnam Jahanian said, in an email to the entire campus, “At times like these we are reminded of our deeply rooted connections to Pittsburgh, which itself was built by people of many different faiths and backgrounds.”

The shooting took place on the Jewish Sabbath, a traditional day of worship and rest that is central to Jewish life. In the basement, a Bris was being held to celebrate the birth of a new baby. Many Conservative and Orthodox Jews walk to synagogue to attend service every Saturday morning.

Because many groups of Orthodox Jews do not use electronic devices during the Sabbath, some did not find out about the tragic news until Saturday night.

This hate-motivated shooting is of a magnitude that has not been perpetrated against the Jewish community in decades and is reflective of a rise in American anti-Semitism and gun violence. A recent report published by the Anti-Defamation League found that anti-Semitic incidents increased by 57 percent in 2017.

In an interview with CNN, President Trump criticized the lack of security presence at the synagogue and called for the death penalty. He voiced that shooting had “little to do” with gun laws. “If there was an armed guard they would have been able to stop him.” He added, “it’s a shame we have to think like this.”

In an article published by The New Yorker, Benjamin Wallace Wells argued plainly that the causes for such violent acts “are the toxic politics of the President, and the racist, nationalist fervor that has been inflamed by his rise, and the success and the militancy of the gun lobby.” Wells noted that this was the second attempted hate-based massacre in just 72 hours. On Wednesday, a white man in Jefferson, Kentucky, shot and killed two black customers in a Krogers, just 10 to 15 minutes after attempting to enter a predominantly black First Baptist Church.

The Carnegie Mellon community was alerted promptly of police activity at 10:28 a.m. on Saturday. All university sponsored events were canceled. Among the planned events were the Homecoming football game and the College of Fine Arts’ Beaux Arts Ball. Carnegie Mellon students were asked to remain inside. The Shelter-in-Place warning was not lifted until noon.

Some professors postponed assignments, allowing students to take the weekend to reflect and mourn.

At 6 p.m. on Saturday, nearly 2,000 community members gathered in central Squirrel Hill for a vigil organized by Jewish students of Taylor Allderdice High School. Allderdice is commonly attended by residents of Squirrel Hill. A mass of people filled the streets and sidewalks adjacent to the intersection of Forbes and Murray. The students led them in Misheberach, a Jewish song for the sick and healing. A grey sky loomed overhead as mourners bowed their heads in a moment of silence.

Students from Allderdice talked about how this tragedy would impact their Jewish experience, examined their role as young people, and led the mourners in songs and chants, including a chant that seemed to fluctuate between “vote” and “hope” as it echoed through the gathering.

At 7 p.m., Chabad, Hillel, and Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) came together to host a vigil on Carnegie Mellon campus, in the Center for Diversity. Nearly 100 students and faculty put their arms around one another and swayed as Rabbi Shlomo, of Chabad, led Havdalah, bringing the Sabbath to a close.

Provost Laurie Weigert told students that professors had been made aware of the events, and asked to provide some leniency. She voiced that “In times like these, we need to come together.” Rabbi Shlomo urged students to reach out to Chabad, Hillel, and AEPi: “Our doors are always open.”

Small conversations eventually emerged from a harkening silence. AEPi moved a planned barbecue event to the vigil, and attendees lined up for chicken and steak. After fifteen minutes, the atmosphere became friendly and intimate. People were talking loudly to one another. It felt like a community. Nate Chevan, a Senior in Chemical Engineering, said “Being together, this is what Judaism is about.”