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Pennsylvania Community Comes Together with All Faiths

PITTSBURGH — Sixteen. That’s the number Jan Sciulli remembers. It was the worst 16 minutes of her life.

Her husband was attending the 10 am Saturday Shabbat services at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

It was nearly the same time that police say a 46-year-old man carried three handguns and an assault weapon into the synagogue and began firing, killing 11.

Sciulli tried her husband’s cellphone and he didn’t answer. She never heard from her husband for 16 minutes. “It was a sick feeling,” she recalls.

Sciulli’s husband, Lou Fineberg, was walking through the temple’s parking lot when his friends motioned frantically for him to stay away from the door. “They saw broken glass and heard gunshots and were calling 911,” Fineberg said.

Fineberg is a regular at Saturday services and previously found “peace and solace” inside the synagogue. He later discovered his friend Jerry Rabinowitz was one of the dead. Fineberg talks about Rabinowitz as a backbone of the Saturday services, “He would always welcome everyone with such joy.”

Elderly Victims

The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, tight-knit Jewish community of Squirrel Hill is learning how to deal with this hate crime, while coping with their grief. Beautiful stately brick houses with slate roofs line the leafy streets. Families of four generations live here, go to school here, and attend temple. It’s the type of community where everyone at least knows someone who knows someone. The dead — eight men and three women — ranged in age from 54 to 97. They included a husband and wife, two brothers, and a family practitioner.

Sara Stock Mayo used to babysit the children of one victim. She lives a few houses away from the Tree of Life Synagogue. The shooting won’t force her to change any of her patterns, but Stock Mayo does think the Jewish community will “assess what security looks like in religious institutions.”She said places of worship in the United States have always opened their doors to welcome everyone but she thinks the attacks might affect that, “It just makes me sad.”

Federal Criminal Charges

Police have charged Robert Bowers of Pittsburgh with 29 criminal charges, including hate crimes. Prosecutors say they will ask for the death penalty. Officials say he was armed with an AR-15 assault weapon and three handguns. Inside the synagogue, he yelled “All Jews must die,” believing that Jews "were committing genocide to his people." In a final on-line posting just before the attack, Bowers wrote, “I can't wait while my people are getting slaughtered...I'm going in."

Unifying Not Dividing

Ironically, hate is what brought thousands together to celebrate unity and love Sunday night at an interfaith prayer vigil at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland, Pennsylvania, a little over three kilometers from the synagogue. There was not an empty seat inside the hall that seats 2,300 and another 1,000 people were in the overflow crowd, huddling around loudspeakers in the rain outside.

Jeffrey Finkelstein, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh explained the size of the crowd, saying residents need “the comfort of each other.”

One by one, religious leaders from differing philosophies took to the microphone. Wasi Mohamed, the Executive Director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh said he refuses to remember “one individual filled with darkness.” Instead he will remember during this time the light of the thousands who attended the Interfaith vigil and the support of Americans from all over the country.

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