Syn­a­gogue gun­man’s 79 min­utes of ter­ror

A Shab­bat morn­ing shoot­ing spree that claimed the lives of 11 peo­ple in­side one of Penn­syl­va­nia’s old­est shuls is Amer­ica’s worst ever an­tisemitic at­tack


THE WORST atroc­ity against Jews in Amer­i­can his­tory was com­mit­ted with five min­utes’ no­tice.

At 9.49am last Satur­day, Robert Gre­gory Bow­ers wrote the chill­ing words “I’m go­ing in” to con­clude a so­cial me­dia post at­tack­ing a Jewish refugee char­ity.

A short time later the first 911 calls be­gan to come from in­side Pitts­burgh’s Tree of Life syn­a­gogue, where Shab­bat ser­vices were underway. The 46-year-old self-em­ployed lorry driver had marched in­side car­ry­ing an as­sault ri­fle and three hand­guns.

After a lit­tle over an hour, eleven peo­ple were dead. Mr Bow­ers, who was shot and wounded in a gun bat­tle with po­lice, is in cus­tody as the only sus­pect.

He later re­pot­edly told of­fi­cers “I just want to kill Jews” and “all these Jews need to die”.

Among his vic­tims were Ce­cil and David Rosen­thal.

“They were two de­vel­op­men­tally disabled broth­ers who never seemed to miss a sin­gle Shab­bat ser­vice,” one longterm Tree of Life mem­ber, Elissa Wald, said. “Ce­cil was the greeter, warmly hail­ing ev­ery­one as they came in.”

Robert Gre­gory Bow­ers

Greet­ing was also a role taken on by an­other victim, Irv­ing Younger, 69, a re­tired es­tate agent.

Many of those who per­ished were grand­par­ents. They in­cluded Daniel Stein, 71, a pres­i­dent of the syn­a­gogue’s Men’s Club who doted on his grand­son, and 87-year-old Melvin Wax, who was lead­ing a Shab­bat ser­vice in the base­ment when the gun­man struck.

Dr Jerry Rabi­nowitz, 66, was, one of his pa­tients re­flected, “the one to go to” to fight HIV in Pitts­burgh be­fore ef­fec­tive treat­ment ex­isted. 65-year-old Richard Got­tfried, a den­tist, was known for hand­ing out tooth­brushes rather than sweets to chil­dren on Hal­loween.

Toronto na­tive Joyce Fien­berg spent 25 years at the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh de­vel­op­ing ways to im­prove class­room teach­ing in schools.

The old­est victim, 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, was said to have barely missed a ser­vice in decades, while a 1956 ar­ti­cle in the Pitts­burgh Press records the mar­riage of Syl­van Si­mon to his new wife Ber­nice in a can­dlelit cer­e­mony in the Tree of Life syn­a­gogue. They died to­gether on Satur­day in the same build­ing, now aged 86 and 84, two months be­fore their 62nd wed­ding an­niver­sary.

The Jewish com­mu­nity of Pitts­burgh dates back to the mid-19th cen­tury, when a small group of Ger­man Jews set­tled in the area. It is a typ­i­cal Amer­i­can Jewish com­mu­nity — vi­brant, sta­ble, and rel­a­tively pros­per­ous. Un­til re­cently its claim to fame was the 1885 Pitts­burgh Plat­form, the controversial doc­u­ment that es­tab­lished the Amer­i­can Re­form move­ment.

Since the 1920s, Jewish life in Pitts­burgh has largely cen­tered around Squir­rel Hill, a neigh­bour­hood of some twenty syn­a­gogues, nu­mer­ous kosher restau­rants and Jewish day schools.

Founded in the 1860s, the Con­ser­va­tive Tree of Life con­gre­ga­tion is one of the old­est. Its build­ing is an airy, spacious syn­a­gogue, with large stained glass win­dows, gar­dens, and a To­rah scroll res­cued from the Holo­caust.

Be­fore Satur­day, Robert Bow­ers ap­peared to have been a law-abid­ing cit­i­zen with only a 2015 traf­fic vi­o­la­tion to his name. He now faces 29 charges, in­clud­ing ob­struct­ing the ex­er­cise of re­li­gious beliefs re­sult­ing in death — a hate crime. Fed­eral prose­cu­tors in­di­cated he could now face the death penalty.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and his daugh­ter Ivanka, who con­verted to Ju­daism, laid stones on the eleven memo­ri­als out­side the Tree of Life syn­a­gogue and met the rabbi on Tues­day.

His spokes­woman later said it had been a “very hum­bling and sad” visit — but for many in the com­mu­nity, Mr Trump’s di­vi­sive poli­cies had a role to play in the atroc­ity.

It was a view voiced by 4,000 demon­stra­tors who gath­ered nearby in the syn­a­gogue’s Squir­rel Hill neigh­bour­hood, where a speaker told the crowd: “Your words and your poli­cies have em­bold­ened the white na­tion­al­ist move­ment.”

On one plac­ard, the mes­sage was even more stark: “Trump, apol­o­gise for stok­ing the ha­tred or go home!”

Cover im­age: Tree of Life Rabbi Chazan Jeffrey My­ers (right) em­braces other rab­bis who were lead­ing ser­vices that day

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