shrine

One of several shrines near the cordoned off area surrounding Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. CJN Photo | Jane Kaufman

PITTSBURGH – Twenty-four hours after the shooting, the feeling on the street here was sadness, not rage.

People had flowers in hand and tears in their eyes as they made their way to the edges of the cordoned-off blocks to add their bouquets to spontaneous shrines.

The largest shrine was at one corner of the Tree of Life Congregation that also served as the media center, where the roar of television vans was constant and the treelawns were turning to mud.

On the afternoon of Oct. 28, a parade of people from several Catholic churches, each bearing a single flower, walked through Squirrel Hill toward the synagogue.

On Oct. 29, when the Jewish Community Center reopened after the horrific events of the weekend, both flowers and votive candles were left on the steps.

The many shrines appeared to serve as focal points for shock and grief in spite of the intrusion of television cameras. 

Squirrel Hill, with its aging sycamores, well-kept houses and big front porches, still looks like the peaceful, diverse and quiet neighborhood it’s apparently been for years with the exception of one horrific, tragic moment.

It bears a strong resemblance to Cleveland Heights, only its commercial areas are perhaps a bit more walkable. There are parks and coffee shops.

The word that comes to mind is civilized.

The day after a gunman killed 11 people and injured six, including four police officers, families with young children delivered doughnuts, handmade cards and pizza to the police officers who were first responders.

As a reporter for the Jewish press, I experienced Pittsburgh’s kindness time and again in the 24 hours I was there.

Strangers helped me find my way.

A waitress at Ritter’s Diner patiently crossed out my order three times and explained to the cook what it was I wanted. She later looked me straight in the eye and thanked me for a tip. And just as I was leaving, she offered me a hug, seeing that I was on the edge after a day that brought both inspiration and profound sadness.

People were polite and caring.

One man walked me to the end of the block on his way to his work at an auto parts shop, ushering me in the direction of the Jewish Community Center.

When I got there, a police officer guarding the building told me in the politest tone possible that if I wished to take pictures of that building, I needed to cross the street. And when I forgot and began to lift my camera to focus, he patiently reminded me again.

The hotel staff was gracious, from the clerks who gave me extra keys after I left mine in my room, to the housekeeping staff who cleaned the room after me. With my press pass hanging from my neck, and as I told strangers I worked for the Cleveland Jewish News, they responded, “I’m sorry,” their shorthand for offering condolences.

That included the reporter from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette as he prepared to launch a drone over the synagogue to take photos from the sky.

I stopped at a falafel shop as I prepared to leave town. The owner and his wife were Syrian. They asked me if I was new to Squirrel Hill. When I told them I was there to cover the vigil for the Cleveland Jewish News, they too offered condolences.

Then the woman showed me the screen of her phone, pointing to her daughter’s latest post on Facebook. She, like so many others near and far from Squirrel Hill, proudly displayed a “Stronger Than Hate” logo.

“I’m so proud of her,” she said with a smile.

At vigils this week, there’s been a lot of talk of kindness and chesed, as a way to tikkun olam, repairing the world. It offers the only hope for healing.   

Pittsburgh may be the city of steel, but during this deeply tragic moment, it’s shown its heart of gold.

Jane Kaufman is a staff reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News.

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