PITTSBURGH — They gathered in the shuttered street Friday, just as the sun began dipping toward the horizon. Men and women, in the shadow of the imposing concrete facade of Tree of Life, stood beyond the yellow police tape that still surrounds the building.
Here, underneath a stoplight and amid the din of traffic, they turned to the east — toward Israel — and began their prayers.
This group wanted to ensure that these evening prayers, which marked the start of Shabbat, continued at Tree of Life, even if the bloodstained sanctuary remains a crime scene, a place where 11 people seeking the solace of morning services had instead met their deaths.
“When you went to the funerals, you heard how dedicated they were to Shabbat,” said Sam Weinberg, principal of the Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh. He reached out to his students to gather here for Shabbat prayers, and many of them came, some donning yarmulkes in Steelers black and gold.
“It would have been a shame not to have them here,” he said.
Across the city on Friday night, the ritual repeated itself in homes and in synagogues.
It has been a week since a man burst into this synagogue in the heart of the historic Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, killing some of the most dedicated congregants and shaking the sense of security for Jews worshiping across the country. But even as Tree of Life remained cordoned off, and even as victims remained in the hospital, people lit Shabbat candles, prayed, shared food and attempted to reclaim a sense of peace.
About a mile away, at the home of 69-year-old Myriam Gumerman, an eclectic crowd gathered to observe Shabbat. There was her friend Elkhaili Oumallal, a 35-year-old community college student and translator, whom she had befriended as a passenger in his Uber. Oumallal is Muslim and Gumerman is Jewish, but both were raised in Morocco.
Then there were her neighbors: a Jewish couple from Amsterdam and a Christian couple — Anne Curtis and Tim Clark — who has lived in the neighborhood for more than four decades.
For Curtis, the dinner was an extension of the Pittsburgh concept of “nebby,” local slang that means “nosy,” but also conveys a sense of concern for neighbors. In the days since the shooting, she has been calling and texting neighbors to ensure they were safe.
“The core is we take care of each other,” Curtis said.
Gumerman began Shabbat by lighting a dozen yahrzeit candles, one for each of the victims and a 12th for those who were still in the hospital. The candles are normally lit on the anniversary of the death of loved ones, but Gumerman wanted a way to commemorate the victims this past week.
If the shooting was intended to frighten worshipers away from services, it appeared to have the opposite effect: People crammed the seats in the sanctuary of Beth Shalom for services Friday night and Saturday morning. The synagogue sits less than a mile up the road from Tree of Life, and it has taken in people from all three congregations that held services there.
They included congregants who rarely attend services and non-Jews, who answered the call from their own faith communities to attend services in solidarity of Jewish Pittsburghers.
“Tonight, I really want to keep my mouth shut,” Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New Light, one of the congregations that held services at Tree of Life, told the congregants Friday night. “Because there are no words.”
Instead, the rabbi invited them to come to the front of the sanctuary to share their favorite memories of the victims and offer words of strength. One man said he dressed up in memory of victim Melvin Wax, who was known for dressing formally even for casual services. They recalled his fondness of telling jokes and his acumen with Hebrew.
Saturday morning, Pittsburghers gathered there and outside of Tree of Life, where they held services despite a chilly drizzle. Shortly before 10 a.m., the tearful crowd — Red Cross volunteers were on hand distributing tissues — held a moment of silence to mark the week anniversary of the first call to 911, made by a rabbi hiding in the choir loft.
At Beth Shalom, the sound of weeping could be heard during services. There were prayers for the dead, the wounded and the physically unscathed — those who may have escaped the gunfire inside the building or regulars who happened to not be there that morning.
While congregants prayed to God, they also appealed to politicians to strengthen gun control laws.
“Our theology is that God created humans with free will. Humans can choose to do good or evil,” said Beth Kissileff, the wife of Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, during an emotional speech.
“Our job is to make sure that those who choose to do evil don’t have access to assault rifles,” Kissileff said, prompting rousing applause from the audience.
Congregants said the Rabbi Jeffrey Myers also addressed his controversial decision to meet with President Trump when he visited the synagogue, saying that he wanted to fight hate with kindness and openness. He said he conveyed his concern about the effect of Trump’s rhetoric directly to him.
For many who came, the services were a source of comfort and strength, but also deep grief.
Jean Rosenthal, 90, was typically the second person to arrive at Tree of Life for Saturday services, but she felt ill last weekend and decided to skip. She said the outpouring of support from all corners of the community — from refugees and Muslims and strangers — was uplifting. But her heart ached over the loss of her friends. Services, she said “was torture” — and she said she did not expect to see antipathy toward Jews end before her death.
“Everybody has been so good,” Rosenthal said. “But anti-Semitism will never die.”
From the back seat of her daughter’s car after services, she peered through the windshield at the sky.
“It’s Saturday. The sun is shining through. That’s hope,” Rosenthal said halfheartedly. Then her voice grew softer: “I wish we could go back in time and just erase it.”
Kayla Epstein contributed to this report.