Attack hits close to home
Local Jewish residents feeling ‘vulnerable’ in wake of shooting
The distance between Altoona and Pittsburgh seems shorter since Saturday’s horrific attack in Squirrel Hill, where a gunman used an AR-15 rifle and other weapons to kill 11 people and wound six inside a Jewish synagogue.
“It’s so close to home that it makes all of us feel more vulnerable,” Bill Wallen, executive director of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation, said Sunday. “You just can’t say that Pittsburgh is a long way from here.”
Lakemont area resident Roz Sky, who taught Sunday School lessons in the 1960s at the Tree of Life Synagogue where the killings occurred, said she was “absolutely devastated” by the news.
She grew up in Pittsburgh and her grandmother lived in Squirrel Hill.
“It was a beautiful neighborhood and it was Mr. Rogers neighborhood,” Sky said, referring to the longtime Pittsburgh TV children’s show host who advocated kindness and neighborly behavior. “How could this happen?”
About a dozen people were inside the synagogue’s main sanctuary on Saturday morning when gunman Robert Gregory Bowers walked in and began shooting, Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said Sunday during a vigil in Pittsburgh. Bowers, a self-employed long-haul truck driver, expressed hatred of Jews during the rampage and later told police “all these Jews need to die,” authorities said.
Sky said she didn’t recognize the names of any victims, but remains sad.
“What happened is just heart-breaking,” she said.
Wallen and other local religious leaders are discussing plans for an interfaith service in the Altoona area.
“It’s not just the Jewish congregations that have been affected by this,” said Rabbi Audrey Korotkin of Temple Beth Israel. “The outpouring of support from the Christian community has been phenomenal.”
Cantor Benjamin Matis, spiritual leader of the Agudath Achim Congregation, agreed.
“We’ve gotten considerable support from the community and that has made us feel really good,” Matis said. “To have the support of brothers and sisters in faith is very appreciated.”
Wallen said he remains grateful to the Altoona Police Department for inquiring about the time of services at the Temple Beth Israel and at the Agudath Achim Congregation. Officers have been patrolling in their areas.
“I guess we always think we’re safe because we know our community,” Korotkin said. “But Pittsburghers thought they knew their community too … Maybe that’s why it’s beyond comprehension that somebody had that much hate for people he didn’t know.”
Youth who attend Sunday school at Temple Beth Israel were asking Sunday if it’s safe to go to a synagogue and if it’s safe to go to a church, Wallen said. Because of what happened Saturday, Temple Beth Israel locked its doors Sunday and granted admission to those who were recognized via a security camera.
“This will make us a little more cautious, a little more afraid,” Wallen said.
It will also bring back memories of other church-related shootings that occurred closer to home.
In December 2012, a gunman shot and killed 58-year-old Kimberly A. Scott of Duncansville while she was decorating for a Christmas party at the Juniata Valley Gospel Church near Geeseytown. The shooter, Jeffrey Lee Michael, also killed a neighbor and a motorist in a head-on collision before Michael ended up in a shootout with state police who killed him.
And in November 1983, Donald M. Wertz of Altoona shot and killed Barbara M. Pheasant, a 55-year-old woman who was heading into Bethany Lutheran Church for rehearsal with the Sweet Adelines singing group. Wertz, after being declared not guilty but mentally ill, has since resided at a mental health facility. A psychiatrist testified that Wertz blamed God for the shooting.
But what happened Saturday in Pittsburgh, Matis said, is symptomatic of the discourse that has developed in today’s society and the hateful speech that can be heard anywhere.
“As Americans, we need to close that gap between ‘us and them,'” Matis said. “We may be people with a whole lot of opinions and different opinions, but in the face of what happened Saturday, now is the time to stand in unity.”