On Saturday morning, police in Pittsburgh rushed to the scene of a deadly shooting at a synagogue in Squirrel Hill. The suspect barricaded himself in the synagogue and killed at least seven people, wounding at least one police officer before eventually surrendering to the police. He is now in custody.
“All Jews must die,” the suspect yelled. He attacked the synagogue as worshippers were gathered for morning prayers on the Sabbath. Reports said there were probably about 60 to 100 people gathered in the synagogue at the time.
In New York and Washington DC, police sent officers to guard synagogues and Jewish community centers following the Pittsburgh attacks.
Here’s what you need to know about the Tree of Life synagogue:
1. Tree of Life Was Founded Over 150 Years Ago in Squirrel Hill
The Tree of Life synagogue was founded more than 150 years ago in Pittsburgh. In 2010, Tree of Life merged with another congregation, L’Simcha (“Life”), forming Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha. Tree of Life is a conservative synagogue, occupying a middle ground between the more modernized “reform” congregations and the more traditional “orthodox” congregations.
According to the Squirrel Hill Historical Society, the first organization that Pittsburgh Jews formed in the area was a burial society, Rodeph Shalom, formed in 1847. It quickly developed into a full congregation but split in 1864 over a disagreement about worship. The Civil War was raging, and congregants also bought a plot of land to use as a cemetery.
In 1882, the congregation changed its name to Tree of Life, and soon afterward they bought a disused church in Oakland and transformed it into a synagogue. The congregation has since moved into a different building and has relocated to Squirrel Hill, but remains known as the Tree of Life and continues to have the same ideals and forms of worship. Today, three different congregations hold services in separate areas of the synagogue, according to the former president of the synagogue.
2. A Baby’s Circumcision Ceremony Was Taking Place on the Morning of the Attack
CBS reports that on Saturday morning, a baby’s “bris,” or circumcision ceremony, was taking place at the Tree of Life ceremony. The Saturday morning prayers began at 9:45. CBS estimates that 20 to 30 people are normally in the building, although there may have been more people gathered than usual because of the bris. Jeff Finkelstein, the president of the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, said he believed there were 60 to 100 people inside the synagogue on Saturday morning.
At least eight people were reportedly killed after a gunman who said that “all those Jews need to die” opened fire in the building.
3. Tree of Life Offers Religious Instruction & a Special Saturday Morning Service for Children
Tree of Life — working in partnership with L’Simcha and Congregation Dor Hadash — offers religious school classes for children. The classes are on Wednesday afternoons.
On Saturdays the synagogue also offers a Shabbat [Sabbath] children’s service from 10:15am-11:45am. Once a month the service is performed on Sunday at 9am instead. Jeff Finkelstein, the president of the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, said he believed there were 60 to 100 people inside the synagogue on Saturday morning.
4. The Neighborhood of Squirrel Hill is Home to 33 Percent of the Jewish Population of Greater Pittsburgh
Squirrel Hill has had a sizeable Jewish population since at least 1920. The neighborhood, in Pittsburgh’s East End, is home to an estimated 33 percent of the Jewish population of greater Pittsburgh, according to a study by the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh in 2002.
The United Jewish Federation report says, “The stability of Squirrel Hill, a geographic hub of the Jewish community located within the city limits, is unique in North America.” Squirrel Hill contains three Jewish day schools, catering to different denominations: the Lubavich, Orthodox, and Conservative movements. There are over twenty synagogues in the neighborhood. The Jewish community also has four restaurants, a Jewish Community Center and an annual festival.
5. The Rabbi of Tree of Life Recently Urged His Congregants to Make Time for Joyous Events
Tree of Life has a relatively new rabbi, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers. He maintains a blog on the synagogue’s website. In his most recent blog entry, Rabbi Myers urged his congregants to take time to celebrate joyous occasions. He noted that many people take time to attend funerals but don’t take as much time to celebrate life’s happy moments with others. The rabbi urged his congregants to fill up their “tanks” with joy whenever possible.
He wrote, “We have a finite, limited amount of s’machot (the plural of simcha – a joyous event) in our lives, and I include in this category birth, baby naming, brit milah, birthday, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, graduation, wedding, wedding anniversary, and other joyous moments. By not participating as fully as possible in s’machot, we deprive ourselves of joy and the opportunity to celebrate with others. As the supply gradually lessens, we cannot go to the simcha bank for a loan or refill.”