PITTSBURGH – Life has been a trial for this city’s Jews during the four-and-a-half years since a gunman burst into the sanctuary of the Tree of Life synagogue, opened fire, and killed 11 Jews at prayer. This month the judicial trial of the shooter is renewing old nightmares, stirring deep passions, and creating fresh trauma.
Pittsburgh has been girding for this for months. The city knew the trial was coming and, with it, the flood of memories from the past (about a Saturday that lives in local infamy) and questions for the future (about the death penalty that might be prescribed, or proscribed).
And while there is no consoling the families – no way to replace the missing, memorialized outside the synagogue and in prayers throughout the world – there is some small consolation in the reaction to the tragedy. Here in Pittsburgh, home to one of the largest concentrations of Jewish people – a city that retained its Jewish community rather than see it move to the suburbs, as it did in New York (Scarsdale), Washington (Bethesda), Detroit (West Bloomfield), and Boston (Sharon) – there is a palpable community-wide sense that antisemitism is a scourge and that hatred is an abomination.
You can see it in the crowd of people of all faiths who, just the other day, gathered at the Tree of Life for a L’Hitraot (“farewell for now”) ceremony. The occasion was the imminent groundbreaking for a reimagined Tree of Life that is to be designed by the famed architect Daniel Libeskind, known for his Jewish Museum in Berlin, and will house the congregation along with a museum, memorial and center for education. “We do not say ‘shalom’ because there is a finality to that word,” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who was conducting services when the shots rang out, said at the ceremony. “Instead, we say ‘see you later,’ knowing that we will return.”
You can see it on the streets of Squirrel Hill, where time is measured by a clocktower where the hours are denoted in Hebrew letters, and where the storefronts still, all these years later, display colorful signs of solidarity with the Jewish community. You can see it in the ease, even after the shooting, with which Orthodox worshipers move to shul on Wightman Street as dusk falls on Friday afternoons. And you can see it in the crowd in the aerobics hall at the gym, in a building on Forbes Avenue that may bear the name Jewish Community Center but which is really the area’s community center, open and welcoming to all.
“This tragedy created a unity in the Pittsburgh community, particularly in the interfaith community,” said Dan Gilman, who at the time of the shooting was chief of staff for Mayor Bill Peduto. “The Jewish community received an unbelievable response here, and it was striking in light of the rise of antisemitism nationally. Pittsburgh’s Jews know that Pittsburgh has Jews’ backs.”
But right now the backs of Pittsburgh’s Jews are straining under a heavy burden.
“I WAS HOME WORKING that morning. My wife ran in to tell me what was happening at Tree of Life. We could hear the sirens, even though we were many blocks away. I reached for the phone to call my Dad, who normally would be there, at the synagogue. The good news was that he answered the phone on the fourth ring.”
– Elliot N. Dinkin, Pittsburgh business executive and the son of the former executive director of Tree of Life
Everybody here has a Tree of Life story. About the b’nai mitzvahs they attended there. About how three congregations – not only Tree of Life (a Conservative congregation), but also New Light (also Conservative) and Dor Hadash (Reconstructionist) – shared the same building. And, of course, about what happened there on October 27, 2018, when an intruder entered the building with three Glock .357 handguns and a Colt AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.
Rabbi James A. Gibson was holding a baby at Temple Sinai, just blocks from Tree of Life, when Drew Barkley, the executive director, interrupted the proceedings to say that synagogues were under attack and the rabbi had to leave. No, Rabbi Gibson insisted, not before he finished the ritual. The girl was named Yisraela, meaning “the one who struggles with God,” as everyone in Pittsburgh did that day.
Sharon Carver, a professor in the Psychology Department at Carnegie Mellon University, was home when news broke that hit especially hard for the quarter of her department that was Jewish. “Almost immediately a phone tree developed,” she said. “We learned that one of the wives of our faculty members had been in her car on the way to services when the shooting occurred. It was a very frantic day for all of us.”
Bishop David Zubic was celebrating Mass for 600 women in a hotel near Pittsburgh International Airport when, after holy communion, an associate whispered in his ear that there had been a shooting at one of the synagogues in town. “This was going to be a whole-day gathering for Catholic women and it turned out that one of the participants had a husband who was Jewish and who went to Tree of Life every Saturday,” the bishop recalled the other day. “We prayed together, the two of us, Peg Durashko and I, and then I learned that her husband, Richard Gottfried, was one of the victims.”
Nancy Polinsky Johnson, then the owner and editor of the popular Shady Ave magazine, and her husband, David Johnson, the veteran nighttime anchor of WPXI television, live less than a mile from Tree of Life. They were holding a get-to-know-you brunch with a family that had moved in nearby when all their cell phones started pinging. “At the start it was so vague – what was this?” she said, “and then it became clear what it was.” In an instant Mr. Johnson was out the door, walking – sprinting, really – toward the synagogue. “Seeing the police barricading the corner of Murray and Northumberland and seeing a SWAT team moving told me that this was really bad,” he recalled. “And all the time I was thinking that I probably knew some people in there and would have to broadcast the news of their deaths.”
Rod Doss is the owner and editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, perhaps the most influential Black newspaper in American history and a crusading force in race relations for decades. He heard about the shooting on a news broadcast. “I can’t say I was surprised because I had been watching any number of racists spewing antisemitic rants,” he said. “But when it hit home here it really jarred me to find that the hatred had gotten so close.”
Mr. Gilman was washing baby bottles at the kitchen sink when he was paged by a 911 operator. He immediately got a second page that said there was a police officer down at the Tree of Life. He called the mayor, the police chief and the public safety director. Then he drove to Mayor Bill Peduto’s house and picked him up.
Mr. Peduto, enjoying a rare day with no scheduled events, was catching up on sleep after a tough week at the City-County building in downtown Pittsburgh. “I hadn’t set an alarm but Dan’s call awakened me,” he said. “I said a prayer before he picked me up and we arrived while the shooter was still moving about. I saw a state trooper stand in the middle of the street and change clothes into battle gear. I saw police officers’ cell phones get soaked in the rain and become inoperative. I saw other officers rush into the temple without any protection. And it swiftly became clear that I would know some of the victims and that their families would get the worst news they would ever get while they were on earth.”
“WHEN I WAS GROWING up years and years ago in Squirrel Hill, a place of worship was a neutral zone. You felt safe there, even with your personal wounds. The idea that someone would go into a synagogue and shoot it up shattered that idea. I’ve been horrified by this ever since.”
– Sylvan Holzer, president of PNC Pittsburgh at the time
The Tree of Life synagogue, like so many American houses of Jewish worship, was born in rebellion. It was an offshoot of Congregation Rodef Shalom – and until the 2018 shooting the most famous synagogue in Pittsburgh. It was known for its pioneering innovations in the Reform movement and for the appearance, in 1909, of William Howard Taft – the first time a sitting American president had joined a congregation for Shabbat services. Housed first in downtown Pittsburgh and then in the city’s university district known as Oakland, Tree of Life eventually found its home in Squirrel Hill, known as one of the premier Jewish neighborhoods in the United States.
Now that Squirrel Hill is known as the setting for the deadliest antisemitic attack in American life, it also stands relatively apart in the sad annals of mass murders. Many of the shooters end up killing themselves and thus there is no trial – and no focused occasion for closure or, more ominously, trauma rebound. But Tree of Life, and all of politically active Squirrel Hill, now is the forum for a community-wide discussion on one of the most difficult questions in American life: the debate over the death penalty.
In letters to Attorney General William Barr and then to his successor, Merrick Garland, the Dor Hadash congregation – located in the Tree of Life building – has beseeched the Justice Department to abandon its request for the death penalty for accused shooter Robert Bowers, then 46 years old and swiftly identified by authorities as the gunman.
Mr. Bowers, who grew up near Pittsburgh and was educated in the nearby suburban Baldwin-Whitehall School District, had visited Internet sites choked with antisemitic rants. His own posts displayed special enmity for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which for nearly a century-and-a-half has helped resettle refugees in the United States. Shortly before the shooting he shared this vow on the web: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
In he went. Now, in a trial in front of U.S. District Judge Robert Colville, he faces 63 federal charges, including several counts of hate crimes resulting in death and several additional counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs. His attorneys have offered a guilty plea in exchange for lifetime imprisonment without parole. Federal prosecutors have turned that down.
“I WAS DRIVING DOWN Wilkins Avenue and I saw police running toward Tree of Life, I saw gunshots, and I saw an officer wounded – and then I saw the officer being dragged away. And within 30 seconds I called you.”
– William K. Lieberman, Pittsburgh business executive
Mr. Lieberman reached me at the gym, on the elliptical machine, during my usual Saturday morning workout routine. I knew immediately that this was a transformative moment – for the victims, for the city, for my newspaper, for me. I was in my 16th year as executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, only months from retirement. I live three blocks from the Tree of Life. My instinct was to get in the car and drive to the corner of Shady and Wilkins, right there in my neighborhood. As it was, all the arteries leading to and from Tree of Life were blocked. So I did what editors do when a big story is developing. I went to the office.
There a kind of admixture of calm and urgency prevailed. This is what we do, this is how we are. I was the Washington bureau chief of The Boston Globe when terrorists attacked New York and Washington and when a fourth plane, perhaps headed for the White House a few blocks from our office, crashed in a Pennsylvania field. I was at the gym that September 2001 day, too. I rushed back to the office – no shower either time – and then we sat at our desks and did our work, did our duty. Later we reflected on what we experienced. But first we typed.
So it was with the tragedy at Tree of Life. I didn’t have to summon reporters and editors to the office or photographers to the scene. Some vestigial impulse in their DNA – some errant corpuscle in their bodies – sent them to their battle stations. It is a form of tropism; just as plants grow toward the sun, journalists flood into the office during times of tragedy. By midafternoon the newsroom, usually empty but for five or six people on a Saturday, was full. We are the sons and daughters of René Descartes: We type, therefore we are.
Lillian Thomas, now an editor at The Wall Street Journal, was the city editor of the Post-Gazette at the time. She was my first call after Mr. Lieberman’s news tip; while driving downtown I managed to push her number on my cell phone. I got her while she was sipping coffee at her dining-room table. She already had received a scanner alert on her phone: police responding to reports of shots fired at a synagogue in Squirrel Hill.
She had called the news desk, thinking it might well be one of many such alerts that turn out to be nothing. “Within minutes we knew it was a mass shooting,” she said. “My reaction was all about the logistics of scrambling people to the scene and getting the news out. The gut punch came later when I saw the pictures our photographers filed.”
Thus began the most remarkable seven days in the 232-year life of our newspaper, the oldest paper west of the Allegheny Mountains, founded before the Constitution was adopted, distributed to readers before George Washington was inaugurated.
There were details to dig out, stories to find, survivors to interview, victims to honor with obituaries of fate and feeling. We began each morning with a mass meeting. Most days I gave a brief homily to a staff exhausted both physically and emotionally. Eventually I stole the overarching theme from Leo Amery, a British member of Parliament who, in the early days of World War II, admonished a colleague in Westminster by saying, “Speak for England.” My message to our staff was that our job was not only to cover the news but also to ‘‘Speak for Pittsburgh,” which is to say that we needed to express shock, grief and compassion to our home community and to relate the remarkable story of civic unity to the world beyond, because for that first week American, Jewish and foreign eyes were on Pittsburgh.
There were many remarkable stories that we learned that week, none more astonishing than the one I heard over an early supper at the Milky Way, a landmark kosher restaurant on lower Murray Avenue. I had heard there were a number of out-of-town rabbis there, leaders of various congregations who had come for the funerals that were occurring day by day, and so I joined them, out of solidarity perhaps but mostly out of curiosity. There I found myself sitting beside Rabbi Adam Scheier, of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal, where, it turns out, my parents had been married 67 years earlier.
He told me how he booked passage to Pittsburgh on United Airlines, an itinerary requiring a change of planes at Washington Dulles Airport. But then mechanical difficulties in Montreal seemed to make that connection impossible. A gate agent intervened, contacting United officials – we have a rabbi here trying to get to funerals in Pittsburgh, where all those people were shot in a synagogue – and prompting the airline to hold the Washington-to-Pittsburgh connecting flight at Dulles until the rabbi arrived. Then the airline moved that Pittsburgh-bound jetliner to the gate beside the one where the flight from Montreal would settle. Hours later, Rabbi Scheier landed at Dulles, left the Montreal plane, walked a mere one gate to the next gate, and made it to Pittsburgh. Miracle of miracles at a time when miracles seemed necessary.
Every once in a while, even now, I am asked how our paper came to print the first four words of the Mourner’s Kaddish across the top of the front page on the first Shabbat after the shooting. I usually answer with an allusion to Tevye who, in the song “Tradition” in the musical “Fiddler of the Roof,” says, “I’ll tell you … I don’t know.”
Nor do I. I don’t know.
Then in these conversations, I usually say something along the lines of: When words fail you, it may be because you are thinking in the wrong language. The idea of the Kaddish headline came to me in the middle of the night Wednesday. Lacking a Hebrew keyboard, I asked my rabbi to send over the text. Shortly after we printed it, a few Orthodox rabbis noted a mistake. The final letter of the fourth word should have been rendered with an aleph rather than with the hay we employed that day. The prayer had Aramaic, not Hebrew, origins. The result was the most unusual correction I have ever written.
I left the paper shortly afterwards, completing my years as the executive editor in a community far from my North Shore birth, childhood, bar mitzvah and confirmation. In the years that have passed, I have returned to our Pittsburgh newsroom only once, several months after the shooting, the day the Post-Gazette was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for what the judges said was “immersive, compassionate coverage … that captured the anguish and resilience of a community thrust into grief.” That afternoon, and for the last time, I had the floor, and I asked my old staff to pause for a moment of silence in memory of the 11 who died that October morning. The newspaper donated the $15,000 that came with the prize to the synagogue.
“THE MEDICAL EXAMINER’S OFFICE was to release the names of the victims Sunday morning and we had reporters gathered in Squirrel Hill, ready to go to homes of victims’ families as soon as the list came out. One of the names: Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz. In the absurd and desperate magical thinking of the moment I told myself it probably wasn’t our beloved family doctor, just some other doctor with the same name. For months after, the jolt of grief would come each time I saw his name on the label of the bottle of medication he’d prescribed for me.”
– Lillian Thomas, at the time the city editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The names of the victims are well-known today here in Pittsburgh, and from time to time those names are read aloud, almost as a mantra of martyrdom: Jerry Rabinowitz. Richard Gottfried. Melvin Wax. Dan Stein. Joyce Fienberg. Rose Mallinger. Bernice and Sylvan Simon. Irving Younger. David and Cecil Rosenthal.
Four police officers and two others also were wounded.
Pittsburgh is kind of like the setting of the old television series “Cheers,” a place, its theme song bellowed, “where everybody knows your name.” And so it was once the names were released. Everybody knew somebody who was slain, or knew somebody who knew someone who was killed. Degrees of separation suddenly seemed compressed. We knew their names before the knowledge of what happened to them slapped us across the face – pistol-whipped us, you might say – leaving us stunned and speechless, angry and appalled. Mostly angry and appalled.
“Anybody who had been at Tree of Life for anything – services, bar or bat mitzvahs – knew the two brothers, David and Cecil Rosenthal,” said Mr. Lieberman. “They were the greeters. They were the sweetest guys. They gave you a tallit, they gave you a yarmulke, they seated you. Even to this day I think of those two boys.”
All of Jewish Pittsburgh does.
And that is a large reason why, with the jury selection process that was underway this week, Pittsburgh is girding for a trauma boomerang, the return of the memories – the sirens, the news alerts, the dreaded calls – what former Mayor Peduto the other day described for me as “the cascade of grieving” – that accompanied the shooting.
“People will become distressed,” Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and the neuroscience of trauma at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, said in an interview. “They will remember distressing events. Though the outcome of the trial may bring justice and healing and closure, getting through the trauma will be difficult. Very difficult. People have been well into their healing processes and now the wounds are going to open again. It is inevitable that people, especially those with direct experience of the shooting, will have nightmares. Some will have difficulty speaking. Some will experience anger. Some will have trouble concentrating. It should not be pathologized.”
“I WAS SITTING IN our living room when our phone began to ring. I remember thinking over and over again: no, no, no, no, no – and then I realized that I had to do something, to do something so that those people would not have died in vain.”
– Laura Ellsworth, partner in charge of global community initiatives, Jones Day law firm
Ms. Ellsworth, a prominent attorney in Pittsburgh and a onetime Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate, swiftly came up with an idea: hold an international summit in Pittsburgh to discuss hate crimes and to seek answers to combat the pandemic of hatred spreading around the world. The result has been two Eradicate Hate Global Summits, with a third scheduled for this September. The roster of speakers has reached 300, including Ambassador Deborah E. Lipstadt, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism; Alice Nderitu, the United Nations Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide; Julia Platt, board chair of the Jewish Federations of North America; and Fareed Zakaria, the Washington Post columnist and CNN commentator.
“I wanted Pittsburgh to be known for the way we responded to what happened here, not for what that one person did in Pittsburgh,” Ms. Ellsworth said, “and we wanted it to include antisemitism but also beyond antisemitism, to the broader question of hate and hate crimes, and to the fight against all sorts of hate.”
Now she and her colleagues have substantially expanded the effort, partnering with the United Nations to create the Eradicate Hate Global Summit Sports Working Group designed to “speak openly and honestly about hate speech with athletes, employees, the public and those who are targeted by hate speech.” The sports leagues involved in the project now include, among others, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, Major League Soccer, the Women’s National Basketball Association, and the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.
At the same time, an innovative group called the 10.27 Healing Partnership has spawned several initiatives designed to ease the trauma created by the events on the 2018 date bearing the group’s name. As the trial grew near, the group sponsored two sessions exploring how the trial would be conducted and sharing with local residents what to expect. It has recruited drivers to deliver meals donated by local businesses to the family members, survivors, and witnesses who will be at the trial.
Their efforts have been broad. They have sponsored healing circles, Wellness Wednesdays, drum circles, art programs, and forest bathing. They have partnered with Repair the World Pittsburgh on Chai, Chai V’Kayam, a gardening volunteering series. And they are urging Pittsburghers to wear, or display on their homes, blue ribbons to show solidarity with the families of the Tree of Life victims.
“We are passionate about reflecting how our community across Pittsburgh and even the world is more interconnected than we might have realized,” Maggie Feinstein, the director of the effort, wrote in the group’s April newsletter. “These ribbons will serve as a beautiful reminder that you are not alone. Both during this trial and into the future, we are a network of people with many different life experiences who can all stand together in solidarity, stronger than hate.”
The community has rallied against hate and mobilized for compassion. This was evident from the start, with prayer vigils and services across denominations in the wake of the shooting and with additional events marking each anniversary. Beth Kissileff, a leading local Jewish writer, and Eric S. Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center, worked together to create a book called Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy. Mr. Lidji led the History Center’s drive to create an archive (october27archive.org) that commemorates the slaughter at Tree of Life. Bishop Zubic and Rabbi Myers are now planning an October 22 ecumenical service at St. Paul Cathedral, the mother church of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, to mark the fifth anniversary of the massacre.
“WHEN WE LOOK AT the tragedy at Tree of Life and a mass shooting like the one in Buffalo, we have to conclude that these incidents are not random. They are targeted terror attacks, first designed to kill victims and then to send a message to targeted populations that they are not deserving of protection, that they are not Americans and that they are to be met with violence – whether worshiping on the Sabbath or shopping for dinner.”
– David A. Harris, nationally prominent University of Pittsburgh Law School expert on violence in America
Last year, a 19-year-old white man gunned down 10 Black people at a Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo. Later the shooter, Payton Gendron, was sentenced to life in prison, but not before he apologized to the victims’ families, saying he was “very sorry for all the pain I forced the victims and their families to suffer through” and “for stealing the lives of your loved ones.”
He added: “I did a terrible thing that day. I shot and killed people because they were Black. Looking back now, I can’t believe I actually did it. I believed what I read online and acted out of hate. I know I can’t take it back, but I wish I could, and I don’t want anyone to be inspired by me and what I did.”
Apologies after mass shootings are too little and too late, for still the hurt persists in Buffalo, and the healing is slow to take hold – a phenomenon that has been heeded in Pittsburgh, where the hurt has gone on longer.
“There is a lot of grief and a lot of bitterness here in Buffalo, just as there is in Pittsburgh,” said John Hurley, who at the time of the shooting was the president of Canisius College, the Jesuit institution located in the Buffalo neighborhood where the shooting occurred. “We are still dealing with the fallout and the pain. When this occurred there was a race to throw money at this, as if that would have been enough. With every court hearing involving the defendants here, the families and the community were forced to relive this, just as they will in Pittsburgh. It makes us all relive it again and again. I’m not so sure a trial brings closure.”
Maybe not closure, as Pittsburghers may soon discover. But there is consensus that sharing the experience is by itself a healing experience. That is why the initiatives begun by the 10.27 Healing Partnership and others have fallen on fertile soil.
“Taking action gives us a sense of having control, and what humans like the least is feeling that we are trapped, don’t have options,” said Christine Whelan, a former University of Pittsburgh professor now at the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “I know that the kind of things Pittsburgh has been doing have given people the tools to have a shared language to share their emotions.”
“ONE REASON WE WERE so resilient after the Molotov cocktail attack is that we had a plan of action in place. In the four years since the shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, American Jewish institutions have developed rapid-response playbooks to address concrete terror threats and best practices have been shared around the country.”
–Rabbi Marc Katz, writing this April in The New York Times of the Molotov cocktail attack against Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J., in January
Many years ago, back in the late 1970s, the first group of Soviet Jews began to trickle into the North Shore. Our family had been to Russia, and having smuggled Bibles to refuseniks, we were especially interested in the new congregants at Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead. And so at their first High Holidays services there, some of the freshly arrived Soviet Jews – now American Jews – recoiled when they saw a police officer directing traffic outside the synagogue on Atlantic Avenue.
It fell to my mother, who was escorting a couple into their first services, to tell the new congregants that here in America, the police are dispatched to protect the Jews, not to persecute them.
That memory came racing back to me after the Tree of Life shooting, when police officers were only part of the new security precautions outside all synagogues, including my own. “When I go to synagogue there are police cars there,” said Dr. Yehuda, speaking for us all. “It has definitely affected the way we practice as Jews in this country.”
So, too, can that be said of the murders at Tree of Life. The tragedy at Tree of Life and the enhanced security at all synagogues have definitely affected the way we practice as Jews in this country – but perhaps nowhere as profoundly, and as sadly, as in Pittsburgh. Because here the phrase Tree of Life no longer relates to the Garden of Eden from the Book of Genesis. Here, this month and perhaps evermore, the phrase Tree of Life is itself a genesis, of the price of hate but also of the eternal fight against hate in all its forms. Θ
David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.