‘We can’t ignore signs of hate’: One year later, Pittsburgh still healing from Tree of Life shooting

A memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

PITTSBURGH — Hand-knit Stars of David still cling to the metal barriers keeping mourners away from the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

One year ago, on Oct. 27, 2018, a gunman burst into the building during Shabbat services and murdered 11 people. Police say the alleged shooter targeted these men and women because of their faith.

Squirrel Hill encompasses just 2.7 square miles of Pittsburgh, yet the leafy neighborhood is home to 13,000 Jewish residents, a dozen synagogues, and a welcoming community that is widely considered the center of Jewish life in western Pennsylvania.

It now also bears the grim distinction of being the site of the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history. 

Storefronts of delis and dry cleaners on Murray Avenue, the bustling main street of the neighborhood, still display similar stars and signs that declare Pittsburgh is “Stronger Than Hate.” Some are torn or creased, showing their age. 

A local bakery sells hamantaschen — a traditional Jewish cookie filled with jam — year round. Many men walk the streets in yarmulkes, while Pinskers Books & Judaica displays one with “Stronger Than Hate” emblazoned across its front in the window. 

The signs are “never going to go away,” Joel Sigal said on a recent Thursday outside Little’s Shoes, the independent Squirrel Hill shop his family has owned for three decades. 

Neither will the memory of that day. 

Sigal, who is Jewish, is one of many in the neighborhood who are still processing the shocking day when Pittsburgh joined a long and growing list of houses of worship attacked by hate-fueled extremists.

Many observers and media reports have laid out the cruel irony, which Sigal also noted, that Squirrel Hill is a place that prides itself on its diversity. 

“Many people have lived in the community for many years,” said state Rep. Dan Frankel, a Democrat who grew up in the neighborhood and represents it in the Legislature. “At the same time, there’s an increasing amount of diversity in the community. … It’s also become a community of college students, professionals, and very international.”

The past year has forced difficult changes and conversations in the neighborhood, city, and state as Pennsylvanians grapple with the legacy of the mass shooting and debate what to do next.

Signs seen in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

‘We can’t ignore signs of hate’

Brad Orsini has been director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh since January 2017.

The former FBI agent is the first person to hold the job. He was hired by the federation in response to growing fears of anti-Semitic violence.

One of his first acts as director was to get rabbis and other community leaders to send him hate mail they receive, so he can forward it to the feds.

“We can’t ignore signs of hate,” Orsini told the Capital-Star. “Hate speech is not illegal … however hate speech can lead to a hate crime, and that’s why we report everything.”

In the nearly two years between his hiring and the massacre, he conducted more than 100 training sessions focused on what to do during a mass shooting, from “run, hide, fight” to applying tourniquets. Those trainings included one at Tree of Life just seven weeks before the attack.

Orsini said the training did help that day. Instead of freezing, people ran and hid. That saved lives. The Tree of Life congregation’s rabbi, Jeffrey Myers, also called the police immediately, bringing law enforcement in faster.

“It’s horrible we have to do that, but unfortunately we live in a country where people can carry around an AR-15,” Orsini said, referring to one of the weapons police say the shooter used.

“Knowing that, specifically, the Jewish community is targeted, of course we have to train our people,” he continued. “We have to give them the basic tools so they don’t freeze.”

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the federation spent $125,000 on armed security outside its daycares and schools, “so our kids can feel safe,” Orsini said. The federation also paid $600,000 to change entrances at 46 buildings.

The Legislature is responding to the need for this type of funding. 

In late October, the state Senate voted to approve an amended bill that contains $5 million for security upgrades to houses of worship. The legislation now returns to the state House for approval before heading to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk. 

“You see at high holiday services security beefed up at every synagogue,” Frankel, who is Jewish, said. “It’s very different going to my synagogue, Rodef Shalom. … There were police in uniform, and there were police and security people in civilian clothing at the different entrances.”

“So from that standpoint, there’s kind of a heightened alert on an institutional side and there’s clearly a level of anxiety in the community that hadn’t existed there before,” he continued. “At the same time, there’s a remarkable sense of resilience in the community, in spite of all that. Squirrel Hill will continue to be the wonderful place it is.”

Frankel also told the Capital-Star he has been working for months on legislation to strengthen Pennsylvania’s hate crimes law.

One bill would increase penalties and give law enforcement training to identify hate crimes. 

“You’ve got to be able to differentiate between somebody who is painting graffiti on something that’s nondescript as opposed to putting a swastika on a mosque or a synagogue,” he said. “That should be treated differently. There should be different penalties involved for them, and our laws don’t do that.”

Another part of the package, which Frankel plans to introduce soon with state Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa — a Democrat who also grew up in Squirrel Hill — would offer education and “a path to redemption for people who commit” hate crimes. 

Frankel said he’s been in close contact with the office of House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, as well as stakeholders from various religious communities — Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs — and the American Civil Liberties Union. 

“We’ve spent months working together on language that works for everybody,” Frankel said. “We’re very hopeful that maybe we have the opportunity to get this done on a bipartisan basis.”

The Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Dealing with ‘extreme risk’

The accused gunman, Robert Bowers, used an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and three handguns to carry out the murders, law enforcement officials say. All were legally obtained

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Democratic lawmakers called for stricter restrictions on firearms. Republicans in leadership positions in the U.S. Congress and the Pennsylvania General Assembly have thus far rebuffed these calls. 

Research on gun laws and mass shootings is limited. But what is radically apparent is that the U.S. is an outlier among other developed countries for deaths by gun. 

Wolf, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, has called on the Legislature to extend background checks to the private sale of long-guns —  which would include one of the weapons Bowers allegedly used — and to pass a “red flag” law, which would allow the temporary confiscation of firearms from a person deemed at risk of harming himself or others.

While extreme risk protection orders, as they’re formally known, have been shown to reduce suicide by gun, one study also found a possible link to preventing mass shootings. 

Researchers at the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis identified 21 cases in California where guns were confiscated from subjects who “made explicit threats.”

“It is impossible to know whether violence would have occurred had ERPOs not been issued, and the authors make no claim of a causal relationship,” the study states. “Nonetheless, the cases suggest that this urgent, individualized intervention can play a role in efforts to prevent mass shootings, in health care settings and elsewhere.”

While Republicans are the lead sponsors of red flag proposals in the state House and Senate, the legislation has not moved in either chamber. 

In the absence of action at the state level, Pittsburgh City Council passed its own gun laws in April, including one that authorizes extreme risk protection orders in the city. 

State law specifically prohibits municipalities from regulating the “transfer, ownership, transportation, or possession of firearms,” and Pittsburgh’s new statutes are currently tied up in court challenges. 

Some of those pushing for stronger gun laws are members of one of the congregations that met at Tree of Life. 

Congregants of Dor Hadash founded Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence “to advocate for legislation that reduces gun violence so that other communities will never face the devastation we have experienced.” One of its members, Dana Kellerman, wrote in the Capital-Star that lawmakers need to tackle the issue the same way they approached traffic fatalities.

Still, other members of the community are taking a different approach to ensure their security. 

Orsini, of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said “hundreds” of people have asked him about bringing a firearm to services since the Tree of Life shooting.

He opposes the idea, and even put together a sheet of questions — on a range of topics from insurance policies to qualifications to use of force policies — for any congregation that wants to consider the option.

Orsini also noted that the gunman managed to shoot and injure multiple trained police officers — including a specialized SWAT team member who is still recovering from his injuries — during the attack.

“It’s hard to shoot a human. It’s not easy,” Orsini said. “It’s one thing to shoot a paper target.” 

A Tree of Life vigil. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)

A day for mourning

On Sunday, lawmakers and community members will join together for a public memorial at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. 

There are also a number of volunteer and community services events taking place. 

“It will be focused on the victims and the resilience of the community,” Frankel said. “It’s not going to be a political affair.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto told WESA-FM that, “Squirrel Hill is still going through a deep mourning phase.”

“In other parts of town, people are more reflective of what has occurred,” he said. “It was a clarion call for all people of faith to come together.”

Sigal said that the changes in the neighborhood since the shooting have been small.

“A lot of people did lots of really nice things for each other after [the shooting] happened,” he said. People may have also been a little kinder to each other.

But the change was hard to pick up on, Sigal said, because Squirrel Hill’s residents didn’t need a tragedy to teach them to be compassionate and empathetic.

“I think they are already.”