PITTSBURGH – Ask the residents who live there and they’ll tell you that Squirrel Hill — the site of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack — is generally a happy, safe community.
After all, it was Mister Rogers’ neighborhood.
The television icon and puppeteer was a minister in the Sixth Presbyterian Church, which is just a 10 minute walk from Tree of Life, the synagogue targeted Saturday.
“It’s a wonderful Jewish community,” said Chuck Diamond, former rabbi at Tree of Life..
The neighborhood is central for Jewish life in Pittsburgh, housing over 26% of the city’s Jewish households — about 15,000 people, according to a study by the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Pittsburgh. Another 31% of Jewish households lie in the surrounding neighborhoods.
“I think we all get together across the board, whether it’s Orthodox or Hasidic or Conservative or Reform and we have wonderful Jewish communal organizations,” said Diamond, who grew up and still lives in Squirrel Hill. “So it’s very vibrant and very active.”
It’s a center for the Jewish community
Squirrel Hill residents are much more active in Jewish life than residents of other neighborhoods, the study found.
They’re more likely to attend Jewish programs than residents of other Pittsburgh neighborhoods — probably because the programs are all nearby. And they’re far more likely to access Jewish-focused culture.
“Squirrel Hill remains both the geographic and institutional center of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish community, and the Jewish community is growing there and in adjacent neighborhoods,” the study said.
“The density of the Jewish population and its institutions in Squirrel Hill make it an attractive neighborhood for Jewish households looking to be especially active in Jewish life.”
But it’s been targeted before
Still, Squirrel Hill has experienced prior hate.
Last year, anti-Semitic and white supremacist stickers and cards were found around the neighborhood on car windshields, park benches and playground slides.
“I thought this was a safe neighborhood,” said Mutlu Kesten, who lives nearby with her husband, Onur, and their 4-year-old daughter. The Muslim couple moved to Pittsburgh from Turkey in 2006. “It’s devastating.”
She said she walks her daughter to preschool near the synagogue every day and the family cherish their close ties with their Jewish neighbors and diverse community.
“Up until now, we were very happy to be here,” said her husband. “But these kinds of things are happening everywhere.”