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A day after the Pittsburgh shootings, ‘a cloud of sadness’ and notes of love

The Steelers were home. Fall was in the air. But this was a very different Sunday in Pittsburgh.

A couple kneels before a memorial at Murray and Wilkins Ave. on Oct. 28, 2018. The memorial was for the 11 people that were killed at the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue.
A couple kneels before a memorial at Murray and Wilkins Ave. on Oct. 28, 2018. The memorial was for the 11 people that were killed at the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

PITTSBURGH — There were familiar touchstones of a fall Sunday here: church services and busy coffee shops and people everywhere outfitted in Steelers hats and jackets and jerseys.

But this Sunday, obviously, was different.

"There's an empty feeling," said David Rosenberg, 61, of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

"It's very heavy," said the Rev. Russel Shuluga of the United Methodist Church in Sewickley, a suburb northwest of Pittsburgh. "There's a cloud of sadness and grief."

In the wake of Saturday's shooting rampage at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, residents and officials alike were still grappling with the scale of the tragedy, still seeking to reckon with the reality that 11 people, many of them older, were killed while gathered peacefully at a place of worship — allegedly by a man consumed by hatred of Jewish people.

The victims ranged in age from 54 to 97, and they included two brothers and a husband and wife. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto called Saturday the "darkest day of Pittsburgh's history."

Rosenberg, who is Jewish and lives down the street from the synagogue, compared the emotions he felt Sunday to those he experienced after 9/11. He knew several of the victims, and his daughter often attended events at the synagogue growing up, such as bat mitzvahs.

That the attack was allegedly motivated by anti-Semitism, Rosenberg said, "made me so sick."

"To have it hit here, it's so frightening," he said.

Shuluga was among those who changed his plans for Sunday in order to mark or mourn the tragedy.

Late Saturday night, even though pamphlets with the agenda for the next day's services had already been printed, Shuluga rewrote his program, adding a new section: Read the name of each victim aloud, then have congregants light a candle and place a white rose beside it.

"This violence and hatred is not the American way," he told worshipers, the Star of David projected on a screen behind him.

His daughter carried in a rose for the four police officers injured in the attack. She is married to a Pittsburgh police officer, Shuluga said, and though he was unharmed, he was involved in the response to the shooting.

The day's emotion was reflected in other ways, as well.

Several businesses along the main street in Squirrel Hill, the tight-knit neighborhood that is home to Tree of Life, had signs expressing support for the synagogue and the sizable Jewish community that lives in the area. The Steelers held a moment of silence before their home game against the Cleveland Browns.

Additional vigils took place Sunday afternoon and evening. The synagogue itself remained closed, with police continuing to barricade the blocks surrounding the crime scene. On one corner, dozens of flower bouquets were stacked in an impromptu memorial.

The city was also welcoming some visiting mourners, who felt compelled to come out of solidarity, despair, or a mix of emotions.

Ken Panitch, 55, of Cherry Hill, drove to Pittsburgh overnight Saturday with a friend. They stopped at a hospital to try to wish surviving victims well, and had written letters for the families of victims.

Panitch, who is Jewish, said he knew his short trip might not have been particularly logical — he planned to drive back home Sunday afternoon — but he was heartbroken about the attack and simply felt the need to do something.

"It's our people," he said, tearing up. "Just feeling that, we needed to be here."

Beth Lindsey, 52, was in town from Columbia, Tenn., to visit family this week. When she heard that Shuluga's church planned to honor the victims, she decided to attend morning services because she was distraught that hatred could reveal itself in such a horrifying manner.

"Our synagogues, our churches, they need to be safe spaces," she said. "When that's broken it violates all of us."

At Nu, a Squirrel Hill restaurant that describes itself as a modern Jewish bistro, server Melissa Simonic, 47, said several of the victims were regulars who stopped in as often as every other day.

Saturday was "horrifying and very scary," she said, but Sunday, messages of support came in from all over the world, and guests were writing notes of love on receipts as they left.

Simonic said it was difficult to know how exactly to move past the devastation of the weekend. But she believed the neighborhood and its residents would support one another while trying to figure it out.

"It's such a well-knit community," she said. "We move [forward] together."