Robert Bowers is accused of shouting anti-semitic epithets during the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Neighbors describe the 46-year-old as “unremarkably normal.”
It began unexpectedly to some, ringing out on a block in Squirrel Hill where a different, darker sound had two days earlier engrossed the neighborhood and then the nation.
Jewish girls from a nearby Chabad orthodox school had walked to the Tree of Life Synagogue, prayer books in their hands and blue ribbons tied to their hair and wrists, to sing.
They harmonized in Hebrew about how Jews have prevailed despite persecution through generations. They wrapped each other in their arms. They swayed. Their music, from the Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith, told of a time free of war and full of peace.
Etsy Peles, 17, a senior at a girls-only high school within the Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, saw 11 names written in black across 11 white stars outside the synagogue, before dozens of bouquets. Each star symbolized a person ripped away in an apparent outburst of anti-Semitism.
The façade of the synagogue had been broadcast around the world. Etsy was accustomed to seeing it on a screen, until she and her classmates walked toward it Monday afternoon
“It’s moving right in front of us, and the names of all the people, and you just felt it in the air, it was tangible,” she said a few hours later from a meeting room at her school. Sisters Talia, 14, and Ayala Rosenthal, 17, joined her in an interview with USA TODAY. “I feel like by going back to the place and praying there and singing there, we just showed everyone that, you know, we can and will remain strong.”
The suspected shooter, Robert Bowers, expressed his hatred toward Jews while speaking to an officer after he shot and killed 11 worshipers at Tree of Life synagogue Saturday. He faces hate crime charges.
“I don’t want to be hated,” Talia said. She wore blue bows in each of her pony tails and a ribbon around her neck.“I know how it feels to be hated, and I don’t want that for other people.”
But outside her school, symptoms of hatred abounded. Three police SUVs stood sentry near the front entrance as students were dismissed. On a concrete path, someone had written “love and peace to you,” which felt like a plea rather than a guarantee.
In Judaism, a “minyan” represents a group of 10 or more, the minimum required to pray. Etsy recalled how, at a vigil Sunday, a rabbi told those assembled that more than a minyan of Jews have been lost.
“It was just all of a sudden, 11 people from my nation are gone due to hate,” Etsy said. “It’s hard. Yeah. It hits close to home.”
Ayala’s little slice of Pittsburgh has responded with friendliness and love, she said, though there’s an unfortunate facet of it she can’t seem to shake.
“It is heartbreaking in a way that we have to go through such a tragedy to see all of us come together,” she said.
Talia and Ayala said one of their neighbors lost his life. They feel a void on their block.
The shooter “tried to destroy us,” Talia said, “tried to break us, but all you have done is just made us closer and tied us, made us more connected. So really it just, it didn’t work. We are stronger.”
Peter Ennis walked away down a leafy sidewalk after the girls filled the block with song.
He’s lived in Squirrel Hill for 30 years. Rose Mallinger, the 97-year-old victim, was his neighbor. Her grandchildren played with his children. They called her by the Yiddish word for grandmother: Bubbe.
The shooter is contemptible, in Ennis’ mind, but he added he was pleased when he heard a Jewish nurse was caring for the man.
His wife stood nearby, both choking on tears. The couple broke down as they spoke of the victims.
Earlier in the day, Emery Noll and Elliot Cohen stood near the same spot, paying respects after laying down flowers. The 20-year-olds, both students at the nearby Carnegie Mellon University, called for more restrictions on guns.
Noll explicitly asked for help from the government.
“Not just telling us to have better security. It’s horrible to think that people like this man could have guns that he does, and do the horrible things that he did.”
Cohen echoed her, saying there’s no reason someone should have access to high-powered guns like an AK-47.
Maria Poznahovska, 27, spoke at a nearby coffee shop about the unfortunate but practical necessity for added security at Jewish places of worship.
At the same time, Poznahovska, who is engaged to a Jewish man, said security should be viewed as little more than a temporary measure, something that shouldn’t be normalized.
“Generally I think that mentality that we have to carry weapons to feel safe really reflects on us as a society,” Poznahovska said. “It normalizes the response that we react to violence with more violence.”
The root problem, she said, is larger than access to guns and she believes begins with divisive discourse, in politics and elsewhere.
“The fact that so many people still feel this kind of hatred (indicates) we’ve not done a great job of combating these things,” she said.
Mikiko Long, 38, is visiting from Massachusetts and spoke about the difficulty of speaking about the discrimination she faces to her relatives. Her mother is Japanese, and her father is of Irish descent.
“It’s not always easy for people who don’t experience (oppression) to understand these things,” she said. But she makes a point of trying to be deliberate and creative in speaking with her relatives, to keep a line of dialogue open with others who may not share her perspective.
Though 23-year-old Andre Solomon, Long’s cousin, isn’t Jewish, he can empathize to a degree with the victims at the synagogue.
“My father was murdered by a white supremacist because of the color of his skin,” Solomon said. “I just feel disappointed again. People can’t see that we’re all human beings.”
He, too, called for more stringent gun control laws after the synagogue shooting. He specifically advocated for limits to the firepower accessible to everyone and to the firearms available to those “who aren’t mentally capable to have them.”
Emma Rose Shapiro, 21, is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh and the president of the Challah for Hunger at Pitt, as well as a leader at the Hillel Jewish University Center.
Shapiro said there comes a time when “you can only offer so many ‘thoughts and prayers.’ After (the shooting), there should be moral outrage, especially among our leaders. But there were crickets. We need to vote them out.”
Back at the Yeshiva school, an officer handed departing children gold stickers, dubbing them “junior police officers.”
Inside, copies of a writing exercise lined a wall. The prompt asked students what they can do to light up the world.
One student vowed to light Sabbath candles. Another to limit “lashon hara,” or gossiping about others.
Others wrote about striving toward positivity, and using kind words, and reserving judgment.
Ayala Rosenthal, the senior high school student, agreed with her sister, Talia, that the response to hate, whether in person or online, should never be met with anger but instead with action.
“If you see someone hating on the street, stop them. Everyone has their own power to contribute to getting rid of hate,” Ayala said. “Everyone has the potential to prevent hate from happening. Everyone has kindness.”
Follow Max Londberg on Twitter: @MaxLondberg
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/10/29/pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting-community-mourns-squirrel-hill/1814095002/