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An attack on a tight-knit Jewish community has left it shellshocked

Pittsburgh's close-knit Squirrel Hill community came together for a vigil after a gunman opened fire on the city's oldest synagogue. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

The quiet central Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill — home to one of the most concentrated Jewish communities in the country — is usually busy with activity on the weekend. On Saturdays, the streets buzz with pedestrians, baby strollers and dog walkers.

This Saturday, however, the streets became eerily silent after a gunman opened fire on the city’s oldest synagogue, killing at least 11 people and injuring six others in the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of the United States.

The attack on the Tree of Life congregation left the community shellshocked.

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Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Elliot Dinkin was reading in his upstairs office Saturday morning, when his wife hurried in to tell him about the shooting.

“I thought it was a mistake,” Dinkin, 58, told The Washington Post. Then he rushed downstairs and saw the news on television. A gunman, identified by authorities as 46-year-old Robert D. Bowers, had fired an assault rifle on congregants during morning services.

Dinkin’s first passing thought: Was his 95-year-old father okay? Now retired, David Dinkin was once the executive director at Tree of Life. Elliot Dinkin was relieved to learn that his father, who rarely missed a Saturday service, had decided to stay home that day because he wasn’t feeling well.

The synagogue’s rich history dates to the late 1800s, according to Lynette Lederman, executive assistant to City Councilman Corey O’Connor and former president of the congregation. Over the years, demographics have changed, but Pittsburgh’s Jewish population continues to boom. Half of them — just short of 50,000 people — live in Squirrel Hill, according to a recent study done by the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh.

“It’s become one of the most diverse places in the country,” Lederman said. “Now we’re so infused by young families who want to live in neighborhoods like Squirrel Hill . . . demographically we are very diverse, but traditions are held very closely.”

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The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh has given funding to the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Association on Aging, according to Lederman, who is also a board member of the latter.

When Elliot Dinkin was a child, he said, Squirrel Hill was a nurturing environment that centered on the Jewish Community Center and the Hebrew day school.

He said that the neighborhood evolved over the years. Although the vibrant Jewish community has not changed, he said, individual synagogues have declined in membership. Tree of Life, for example, now rents out space to other, smaller-growing synagogues.

“There was a drop-off in the population where they couldn’t sustain themselves. When I was a kid it was unheard of because the conservative synagogue was large enough endure on its own,” he said, adding that Tree of Life’s congregation mirrored those of nearby synagogues.

The Tree of Life building houses three synagogues and has multiple communities that worship simultaneously. On Saturday, there were three ongoing services when the gunman attacked.

Squirrel Hill was also home to the late Fred Rogers, the beloved host of the long-running children’s program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” On Saturday night, a vigil was held by local high school students outside Tree of Life. The crowd spread down the streets to Murray and Forbes avenues.

"It was overwhelming. There must have been at least 10,000 people,” said William Isler, former chief executive and producer at The Fred Rogers Company. “I’m sure [Rogers’s] presence was felt by a lot of people.”

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According to an article earlier this year in the Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh’s Jewish population is less tied to organized religion than previous generations. Most Jews identify by religion, but far fewer belong to a synagogue, the article said, adding that the Reform and Conservative denominations have experienced the most significant change.

Still, even to newcomers, Squirrel Hill remains well-known as a center of Jewish culture.

Nikhil Srivasdava, 32, and his wife, Neha Aeri, 30, moved from India to Pittsburgh several years ago. Like Dinkin, the couple experienced the dark side of American life on Saturday, receiving an emergency message from the University of Pittsburgh, where Aeri is enrolled in business school, warning them to stay indoors. Then they saw police cruisers and armed officers blocking off roads.

“We’ve never seen anything like this in this neighborhood. This is one of the, I would say, safest and nicest neighborhoods in Pittsburgh,” Srivasdava said. “We are not sure what to make of it.” Shootings like this, he said, don’t happen in India.

By rare chance, Arnold Freedman, a 91-year-old psychologist whose group Dor Hadosh meets at Tree of Life, did not attend services Saturday. Down the block from Srivasdava, he observed the police commotion, too.

“The next thing I knew, I saw the whole street was filled with police cars,” he said. “I started looking around; I didn’t know what was going on.” Freedman turned on the news and then began receiving calls from concerned friends and family members.

“I’m just lucky that I’m okay,” he said. “The full impact hasn’t really hit me yet. Chances are, I know of some people who were there, who were possibly killed or injured.”

Freedman said he was frightened by the depth of anti-Semitism said to have been espoused by the alleged gunman.

“I’m just terribly saddened by it,” he said. “There’s barely a day that goes by that you don’t hear about people shooting somebody for something.”

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