Joshua Lief was grief-stricken, mystified and angered by the tragedy that played out 60 miles to the northeast.
“At the core, this is not about a person who hates Jews and wanted to kill them,” the rabbi at Temple Shalom in Wheeling emphasized Saturday afternoon, biting off each word. “An attack on a house of worship is an attack on all people.
“This is a hate crime,” he continued. “It happened to target Jews, but this could have been Catholics at a church tomorrow or Muslims at a mosque next week.
“This is profoundly devastating and makes me as a Jew, and an American, want to stand with the 99.9 percent of people who believe in equal justice for all, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This gunman in Pittsburgh came in and ruined all of this.”
Rabbi Lief, of course, was referring to the mass shooting at Tree of Life Congregation in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh. The incident unfolded a little before 10 a.m. as a lone gunman entered the synagogue and began firing shots, killing 11 and wounding six. Four of the injured were police officers. No children were reported wounded.
A suspect – Robert Bowers, 46, of Pittsburgh’s South Hills – was arrested.
The incident occurred during a baby-naming ceremony.
News of the shootings forced the cancellation of a “PA Votes Blue” rally scheduled for Saturday afternoon in Washington. Gov. Tom Wolf and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, Democrats seeking re-election in nine days, were to stop at The Center on Strawberry. It was to have been the second of six rallies Saturday during the duo’s cross-state bus tour.
Wolf issued a statement on the tragedy, which reads in part:
“These senseless acts of violence are not who we are as Americans. My thoughts right now are focused on the victims, their families and making sure law enforcement has every resource they need.
“And in the aftermath of this tragedy, we must come together and take action to prevent these tragedies in the future. We cannot accept this violence as normal.”
Lief, who said his sister lives near Tree of Life, said his temple will host a service at 2 p.m. today “to stand up for peace and decency and respect for each other. This is important, in fact crucial, because society has become embittered.”
Mardi Weber of Hopewell Township wasn’t aware of the incident until mid-afternoon. The grisly details reminded her of the day in April 2000 when Richard Baumhammers, a former attorney, went on a spree in the southern and western suburbs of Pittsburgh. He was convicted of killing five people and shooting up several buildings, including the synagogue where she worshiped while growing up.
“It’s upsetting,” said Weber, wife of the late Steve Weber, co-owner of the former Weber Furniture store in Washington.
“There are so many people who are angry and have no place to express their anger. And let’s not forget access to guns. People say if there are stricter gun laws in place, they would take away your guns. I want to say, no, they won’t take away your guns if you’re a sane human being. If someone shows signs of being a problem, they should not be getting guns.”
Weber said three of her four children reside near the Squirrel Hill synagogue and her oldest daughter, Jenifer, is in Israel as part of a travel group.
The mass shootings prompted swift public response throughout the region and nation. That was especially evident at Central Blood Bank on West Beau Street in Washington, which expanded its hours of operation Saturday. At 4 p.m., about 30 people waited to donate blood, a crowd that extended into the hallway.
The local “Twittersphere” was alive. John C. Knapp, president of Washington & Jefferson College, tweeted: “We at @wjcollege stand in solidarity with the Jewish community in the wake of today’s brutal attack on innocent people at Tree of Life synagogue.”
David Zubik, bishop of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese, issued a statement, saying “... my heart and my prayers are especially lifted up for our Jewish sisters and brothers and the law-enforcement officers who rushed into harm’s way. The relationship between Tree of Life and the Diocese ... has been close over many years.
“Anti-Jewish bigotry, and all religious and ethnic bigotry, is a terrible sin. As we pray for peace in our communities and comfort for the grieving, we must put prayer into action by loving our neighbors and working to make ‘Never again!’ a reality.”
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a statement:
“The violence against the Tree of Life congregation . . . is horrific. It is an assault on the liberties our country and Commonwealth were founded to protect. When any one community is targeted with violence, intimidation or discrimination, it threatens all of us and must be condemned.”
Lief certainly condemns what occurred in Squirrel Hill.
“Everyone in the Wheeling Jewish community has family members and friends in the Pittsburgh Jewish community. We’re like the synagogue that was attacked, a small congregation in a quiet community.
“We could live in fear of such things, but choose not to. (Temple Shalom has) been here for 170 years. We hope and rely on our friends to treat us with the decency that we extend to them.”