‘I’m always there’: A Tree of Life congregant processes having stayed home sick on Saturday

A day later, a memorial grows where an investigation continues.

Kris Kepler of Hazelwood talks outside the Tree of Life Congregation on Oct. 28, 2018.

Kris Kepler of Hazelwood talks outside the Tree of Life Congregation on Oct. 28, 2018.

Colin Deppen / The Incline

Kris Kepler of Hazelwood should have been inside Tree of Life Congregation on Saturday. But instead of going to service, he stayed home because he felt sick.

“Thinking about the fact that I’m always there and I wasn’t yesterday morning has been really difficult for me to process,” he said, adding that six of the people who died typically sit almost in a circle around him — in front of him, behind him and to the sides.

“All those people were my friends. There were a couple of people I know really well, so it’s been really difficult,” he told The Incline outside the synagogue Sunday.

He’s a member of one of the three congregations that meets at Tree of Life and said it’s unusual for him to miss a Saturday.

“I converted a little over two years ago, and it’s a really important part of my spirituality,” he said.

But he didn’t feel well when he woke up, so he went back to bed and was watching a soccer match when his phone started ringing and the text messages asking if he was OK started to fly in.

“I didn’t understand what was happening. I thought, ‘Sure I’m fine, why would I not be OK?'”

He called back a friend who told him about the shooting. Kepler turned on the news. He later went to the JCC to be with other congregants and supporters.

Officials stand in front of Tree of Life.

Officials stand in front of Tree of Life.

Colin Deppen / The Incline

Tree of Life and the area around it are blocked off as a federal investigation continues and are expected to stay that way for up to a week, officials told reporters at a press conference Sunday morning. Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich urged people to say thank you to emergency workers they see, adding that the gratitude will go a long way.

On Sunday, people came to the synagogue to leave flowers and to show thanks for law enforcement. At least two vigils are planned in the city for later today.

Among those outside of Tree of Life on Sunday were Chad Dehmer of Lawrenceville who said he moved to Pittsburgh eight years ago, and the Jewish community has “become my friends and neighbors, and I wanted to come out to support them.”

And siblings Michael and Lily brought cookies and cards for the officers and gave them to Zone 4 Pittsburgh Police Commander Daniel Hermann.

Michael and Lily brought cookies for police officers.

Michael and Lily brought cookies for police officers.

Colin Deppen / The Incline