Eleven dead, six injured in anti-Semitic attack at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha

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Jewish community members join other Pittsburgh residents to mourn the loss of 11 lives murdered at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha at the first of several vigils in the Squirrel Hill section of the city.

This post has been updated.

By Toby Tabachnik

Eleven people are dead, and six injured — including four police officers — following a mass shooting Oct. 27 by a suspected anti-Semite at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha’s building on the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues in the heart of Squirrel Hill.

The murdered victims are: Joyce Fienberg, 70; Richard Gottfried, 65; Rose Mallinger, 97; Jerry Rabinowitz, 69; Cecil Rosenthal, 59; David Rosenthal, 54; Bernice Simon, 84; Sylvan Simon, 86; Daniel Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 88; and Irving Younger, 69.

Two city police officers and two SWAT team officers were wounded in a shootout with the attacker. Two of the officers have been released from the hospital, while the other two are still being treated for their injuries.

Daniel Leger, a member of Dor Hadash, 70, suffered gunshot wounds to his torso and remains in critical condition. Leger is a nurse and hospital chaplain. Mallinger’s daughter, Andrea Wedner, 61, suffered a gunshot wound to her arm and remains hospitalized in stable condition. She will be released temporarily from the hospital to attend her mother’s funeral on Nov. 2, according to a family member.

“This is an awful, awful period for our Jewish community,” said Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh at a press conference Oct. 28. “And it’s real once you hear the names.”

The synagogue building houses three congregations: Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, New Light and Dor Hadash.

The suspected shooter was identified as Robert Bowers, 46, a resident of Baldwin Borough. Bowers had posted threats against Jews and immigrants on social media sites prior to the attack, according to news reports. One of his posts, on GAB.com, read: “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.”

HIAS launched in 1881 to help Jews immigrate from Eastern Europe, but in recent years has worked to settle non-Jewish refugees from a range of countries including Afghanistan, Bosnia and Vietnam. Locally, it partners with the Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh.

Prior to firing shots, Bowers reportedly yelled: “All Jews must die.” The shooting is being investigated as a federal hate crime. On the evening of Oct. 27, 29 federal charges were filed against him. Prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty.

Authorities said they believe that Bowers acted alone.

Law enforcement had no prior knowledge of Bowers, according to a statement given by the FBI special agent in charge, Bob Jones, at a press conference Oct. 27. Bowers committed his attack with “an assault rifle and three handguns,” Jones said.

The CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, called the assault “likely the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States.” It is also the deadliest mass shooting on record in Pittsburgh.

A matter of minutes

Shabbat morning services began at the building at 9:45 a.m. on Oct. 27. The police received calls reporting an active shooter at 9:54 a.m., and officers were dispatched at 9:55 a.m. Bowers surrendered at 11:08 a.m.

Bowers entered Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha and began firing indiscriminately. He then tried to exit the synagogue but encountered police with whom he exchanged gunfire. Bowers then headed back into the building to escape additional police officers who had arrived at the site.

He eventually surrendered to police and was taken into custody.

Bowers was shot multiple times, according to Wendell Hissrich, Pittsburgh’s public safety director. He was taken to Allegheny General Hospital, is in fair condition and is under heavy guard.

“It’s a very horrific crime scene,” Hissrich said at a press conference. “It’s one of the worst that I’ve seen, and I’ve been on some plane crashes. It’s very bad.”

Speaking from Indianapolis, where he was addressing the National Future Farmers of America Convention, President Donald Trump called the massacre “an anti-Semitic act.”

“You wouldn’t think this would be possible in this day and age, but we just don’t seem to learn from the past,” Trump said. “Our minds cannot comprehend the cruel hate and the twisted malice that could cause a person to unleash such terrible violence during a baby naming ceremony.”

Trump, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, was on his way to Pittsburgh on Oct. 30 “to express the support of the American people and grieve with the Pittsburgh community,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said at a press conference on Oct. 29.

Prior to Trump’s arrival, Pittsburgh’s chapter of the social justice advocacy group Bend the Arc circulated an online petition stating that the president is “not welcome in Pittsburgh until you fully denounce white nationalism.”

By the morning of Oct. 29, almost 70,000 people had added their names to the petition.

Tree of Life Congregation was founded more than 150 years ago. It merged with Or L’Simcha Congregation in 2010. Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers has been the congregation’s spiritual leader since August 2017. Saturday morning services typically are held in the Conservative congregation’s chapel on the first floor.

New Light Congregation was established about 100 years ago, and until recently was located in a building on Beechwood Boulevard. The Conservative congregation moved into the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha building in November 2017. Led by Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, New Light holds services on the lower level of the building.

Dor Hadash is a Reconstructionist congregation led by members and Rabbi Cheryl Kline. Dor Hadash meets in the social hall of the building. It has been located within the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha building since 2017.

This is not the first time the Jewish community has been the target of a mass shooter.

In 2000, former immigration attorney Richard Baumhammer of Mt. Lebanon murdered his Jewish next-door neighbor, Nicki Gordon, and fired shots into Beth El Congregation of the South Hills as well as Congregation Ahavath Achim (the Carnegie Shul). There were no injuries at those congregations, but Baumhammer went on to slay four other individuals — of Indian, Chinese, African-American and Vietnamese descent — and left a fifth person paralyzed.

News of the massacre rattled the local, national and international Jewish communities, as well as the world at large.

Both Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger, Scott Wagner, suspended campaign activity the day of the massacre. Statements of sorrow and support were issued by politicians, Jewish organizations from around the world and other faith groups.

“Today, our commonwealth and country stand in solidarity with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). “This was an evil act of hate and the perpetrator must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”  

For Dan Gilman, chief of staff for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, the attack hit close to home.

“Today was one of the hardest days of my life,” Gilman posted on Facebook. “As a Pittsburgher, proud member of the Jewish community and chief of staff of the city. Today, I lost friends — people I had known my whole life. I have friends and family grieving. I have a community struggling with hate and violence. I have heroic first responders who risked their lives to save dozens.

“I also have the best city in the world behind me. Pittsburgh will always be stronger than hate. We will always build bridges. We will work through this together. Thank you Pittsburgh!”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was “heartbroken and appalled by the murderous attack. … The entire people of Israel grieve with the families of the dead. We stand together with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh. We stand together with the American people in the face of this horrendous anti-Semitic brutality.”

HIAS, the organization referred to by Bowers in an online rant prior to the attack, released the following statement: “There are no words to express how devastated we are by the events in Pittsburgh this morning. This loss is our loss, and our thoughts are with Tree of Life Congregation, our local partner Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) of Pittsburgh, the city of Pittsburgh and all those affected by this senseless act of violence. As we try to process this horrifying tragedy, we pray that the American Jewish community and the country can find healing.”

David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, wrote that his organization is “very close to the Pittsburgh Jewish community and are horrified by this atrocity. We commend law enforcement for their reported quick and decisive response and are disheartened that police officers were shot in the line of duty.”

The Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition’s chairman, Marc Zucker, said he believed the attack to be “the first mass shooting at a synagogue in our nation’s history. … This cowardly act of anti-Semitic violence … fueled by blind hatred of immigrants is a horrific stain on our nation’s heritage as a beacon of hope for all people.”

The JCC Association of North America’s president and CEO Doron Krakow expressed his sorrow and solidarity with the congregations.

“Our hearts are with the Tree of Life synagogue, the three congregations co-located within the facility, and the entire Pittsburgh Jewish community on what has been a horrific day, as we mourn this tragedy and face an increasingly violent epidemic of anti-Semitism,” said Krakow. “Today we were reminded that anti-Semitism is a scourge that can — and now has — cost people their lives.”   

Some pointed to a volatile political climate as contributing to an atmosphere in which festering hate can explode in violence.

“This moment calls for responsible leadership,” read a statement issued by J Street. “We must all join together in condemning the rising tide of white nationalism, racism and hatred directed at Jewish people and other vulnerable minorities in our country. And we must call for an end to the extreme rhetoric, laced with bigotry and racism, that is dominating our national discourse and breeding violence.”

An outpouring of support came from the interfaith community.

“Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania expresses deep sympathy to our Jewish brothers and sisters following this morning’s mass shooting at Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill,” read a statement issued Saturday. “Together, we pray that the memories of the dead may be always a blessing. We pray for healing for the wounded. We pray for peace for the frightened and traumatized. We pray for an end to all violence fueled by hatred and bigotry.”

“Someone chose to hate, and chose to kill,” read a letter sent to area congregations by Bishop Dorsey McConnell of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. “And now we are faced with a choice as well — to do nothing, or to reject this hatred in the strongest possible words and actions, and to refute in every way, in every forum, the philosophical foundations of anti-Semitism wherever they have gained a foothold in our churches and our society.”     

Bishop Zubik of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh stated: “Anti-Jewish bigotry, and all religious and ethnic bigotry, is a terrible sin. As we pray for peace in our communities and comfort for the grieving, we must put prayer into action by loving our neighbors and working to make ‘Never again!’ a reality.”

Funerals for the victims were scheduled between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2. 

Toby Tabachnick is a staff writer with the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.