A 46-year-old man armed with an AR-15-style rifle opened fire at a synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Saturday morning, the Jewish Sabbath, killing multiple people and shooting four police officers, according to officials and law enforcement sources. A suspect was in custody, police said.
Police responded to an active shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue at Wilkins Avenue and Shady Avenue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh Police Commander Jason Lando told reporters. He said there were “multiple casualties.”
Preliminary details from multiple senior law enforcement officials briefed on the incident say at least eight people have died, WNBC’s Jonathan Dienst reported.
Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said there was a total of six injuries, including the four officers shot. The officers sustained non-life-threatening injuries while the others were critically wounded.
“It’s very bad,” Hissrich said of the incident, calling it a “very horrific crime scene, one of the worst that I’ve seen.”
A spokesperson for UPMC Presbyterian hospital said it was treating four patients from the shooting; three are in surgery and the other is stable and waiting for surgery. Another patient was treated earlier and released. UPMC Mercy was also treating a patient in surgery.
Several law enforcement officials say the suspected gunman is 46-year-old Rob Bowers of Pittsburgh, NBC News reported. Bowers’ social media included anti-Semitic comments. Sources say the suspect was armed with an AR-15-style rifle and multiple handguns.
Hissrich said the shooter was taken to the hospital and that the incident is “being considered a federal violation.” He said the FBI was taking over the investigation.
Congregants told MSNBC that a circumcision celebration, known as a bris, was taking place in the synagogue at the time.
President Donald Trump addressed the shooting while boarding Air Force One and called it “absolutely a shame.”
“Terrible, terrible thing that’s going on with hate in our country and all over the world,” Trump said. “The world is a violent world.”
The president added that if the synagogue “had protection inside, the results would have been far better.” When asked if all places of worship should be armed, Trump said that “it’s certainly an option in this world.”
Confirmation on what level of security the synagogue had was not immediately available.
Trump also praised law enforcement for its quick response to the incident and said Pittsburgh is a “great community” with “incredible people.”
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, on the scene with Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, described the incident “an absolute tragedy,” saying, “These senseless acts of violence are not who we are as Americans.”
He called for action to “prevent these tragedies in the future” and said, “Dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm’s way.”
Jeff Finkelstein of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh told WPXI that the organization’s security officer has notified all JCC synagogues and that they are on modified lockdown.
One man who spoke to WPXI said his father-in-law was inside the Tree of Life synagogue at the time. He called the incident “unbelievable” and said “people have to stop hating.”
The tree-lined residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh, is the hub of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. More than a quarter of the Jewish households in the Pittsburgh area are in Squirrel Hill, according to a Brandeis University study of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish community.
More than 80 percent of Squirrel Hill residents said they had some concern or were very concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism, the study said. And many also said they experienced incidents of anti-Semitism in the past year, including insults, stereotypes, physical threats and attacks.
The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks anti-Semitism in the United States, warned earlier this year that 2017 saw the largest single-year increase on record of anti-Semitic incidents, a spike of 57 percent from the previous year. The 1,986 incidents included physical assaults, vandalism and attacks on Jewish institutions.
And a Friday report from the ADL said that far-right extremists have ramped up an intimidating wave of anti-Semitic harassment against Jewish people ahead of next month’s U.S. midterm elections. Posts were sometimes orchestrated by leaders of neo-Nazi or white nationalist groups.
“We are devastated,” ADL Director and CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said Saturday on Twitter. “Jews targeted on Shabbat morning at synagogue, a holy place of worship, is unconscionable. Our hearts break for the victims, their families, and the entire Jewish community.”
In 2010, Tree of Life Congregation — founded more than 150 years ago — merged with Or L’Simcha to form Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha.
The synagogue is a fortress-like concrete building, its facade punctuated by rows of swirling, modernistic stained-glass windows illustrating the story of creation, the acceptance of God’s law, the “life cycle” and “how human-beings should care for the earth and one another,” according to its website. Among its treasures is a “Holocaust Torah,” rescued from Czechoslovakia.
Its sanctuary can hold up to 1,250 guests.
Finkelstein, of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said local synagogues have done “lots of training on things like active shooters, and we’ve looked at hardening facilities as much as possible.”
“This should not be happening, period,” he told reporters at the scene. “This should not be happening in a synagogue.”
Just three days before the shooting, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers posted a column on the congregation’s website, noting that people make time to attend funerals, but not for life’s happy occasions.
“There is a story told in the Talmud of a wedding procession and a funeral procession heading along parallel roads, with the roads intersecting,” Myers wrote on Wednesday. “The question asked is: when they meet at the fork, which procession goes first, funeral or wedding? The correct answer is wedding, as the joy of the couple takes precedence. In fact, the funeral procession is to move out of sight so that their joy is not lessened.”
Myers ended his column with words that now seem all too prescient.
“We value joy so much in Judaism that upon taking our leave from a funeral or a shiva house, the customary statement one makes (in Yiddish) is ‘nor oyf simches’ – only for s’machot,” Myers wrote. “While death is inevitable and a part of life, we still take our leave with the best possible blessing, to meet at joyous events. And so I say to you: nor oyf simches!”
Cathie Mayers, who lives in the Point Breeze neighborhood next to Squirrel Hill, said Tree of Life is a well-known place in the area.
“If you mention Tree of Life to people in Pittsburgh, they know what you’re talking about,” she told NBC. “If you drive around Squirrel Hill on a Saturday, or Friday night, you’re going to see people attending service.”
Mayers called the shooting “surprising” and “very, very saddening,” saying that “it’s unusual for Squirrel Hill, but this is a very, very surprising incident for Pittsburgh, especially at a place of worship.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that he was “heartbroken and appalled by the murderous attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue today. The entire people of Israel grieve with the families of the dead. We stand together with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh.”
“We are incredibly saddened to hear of this morning’s tragedy at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. We send our thoughts and prayers to all those affected,” the Pittsburgh Penguins tweeted.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that “Canadians’ hearts are with the Jewish community in Pittsburgh today.”
This story is developing. Refresh this page for updates.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar/AP
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Source: NBC San Diego