PITTSBURGH — Under a persistent drizzle on Saturday, more than 500 people stood shoulder-to-shoulder during a vigil in front of Sixth Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh to express shock and anger over the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue around the corner.
The church has a storied history of fighting for social justice and was the home congregation of the late Fred Rogers, a humanitarian who starred in the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” television program.
The service was designed to show the unity in this city after 11 people were shot and killed at the synagogue during Saturday services. As they wept and sang religious hymns, the mourners who gathered said the shooting will spur them to greater action in tackling anti-Semitism, assault rifles and fighting poverty.
“You are seeing all of these people show up from this community, because we care about love,” said Jenna Cramer, 37, who lives in Pittsburgh’s Point Breeze neighborhood. “This is Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood and this is a neighborhood where we serve.”
Throughout the day, as the news sunk in here, Cramer said her friends began sharing one of Rogers’s best-known quotes. In times of trouble, Rogers, who died in 2003, used to tell children to “look for the helpers” so they know they are not alone.
“All of these people here are ‘looking for the helpers,” Cramer said, “because that is what this neighborhood is about.”
Squirrel Hill, located near Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, includes both a vibrant commercial strip of clothing stores, coffee shops and bars. It also includes big brick homes where rabbits and squirrels frolic just feet away from traffic-clogged city arteries.
In addition to more than a half-dozen synagogues, Squirrel is also home to several Protestant and Catholic churches.
“One of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in the United States is here, and we value and love our neighbors, and we are not going to allow them to stand alone through this,” said the Rev. Vincent Kolb, the pastor at Sixth Presbyterian Church.
Symone Saul, 33, attended Dor Hadash, one of three congregations that worships at Tree of Life synagogue. As he wandered through the vigil, Saul was asking anyone she could if they had any information on any of the victims.
Like many people here, Saul assumes she will know least one person who was killed in the shooting. But Saul believes the shooting “will solidify” the community into action.
“Everyone is aware of all of these occurrences and unfortunate things that have been happening in this country,” Saul said. “Jews certainly understand. … My congregation was already heavily involved in social justice and I think we see this as more fuel to help other people who are in this same situation, including systematic violence against people of color and immigrants.”
Coming one day after a Florida man was arrested for sending at least 11 explosive devices to prominent Democratic politicians, the vigil at times even took on a distinctly political tone.
When it concluded, hundreds broke into a spontaneous chant of “vote, vote, vote …”
“We have a president that doesn’t understand the dark forces that he has unleashed,” said Ed Wolf, 62, who is Jewish and has attended services at Tree of Life synagogue.
Wolf noted that he’s worshiped at numerous synagogues in Europe.
“I used to marvel at the level of security they have, and I would always leave those places thinking how lucky I am to live in a place where we don’t have to think about stuff like that,” said Wolf, as he began to cry.
Beth Venditti, Wolf’s wife, said anti-Semitic fliers and some graffiti occasionally appears in the community. But Venditti said Jews “always felt safe here.”
“There has been precious little hate until today,” said Venditti, 62.
She also fears Trump will not be able to rise to the occasion to help stamp out violence and anti-Semitism.
“We had a president who stood up and sang ‘Amazing Grace’ after Charleston,” said Venditti, referring to President Obama’s response after Dylann Roof killed nine worshipers at a church with a predominantly African American congregation in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. “That ain’t going to happen now.”