WHEN DID IT BEGIN, this hatred of Jews?
Some would say that all hatred began in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent brought evil into the world, or at the Tower of Babel, when God punished humans for their hubris by destroying their common tongue, making them strangers to one another. Others would point to the New Testament, which, as uncomfortable as it is to admit today, does seem to lay the death of Jesus at the feet of treacherous Jews. Or we can blame the early theologians in the centuries after Jesus, who said things like “the Jewish people were driven by their drunkenness and plumpness to the ultimate evil; they kicked about, they failed to accept the yoke of Christ, nor did they pull the plow of his teaching. . . . Although such beasts are unfit for work, they are fit for killing. And this is what happened to the Jews: while they were making themselves unfit for work, they grew fit for slaughter.” Over the centuries, Christians would point to the Jews’ own stubbornness as the cause of others’ antipathy toward them. There was the Jew-hatred of the Quran (“Allah has cursed them on account of their unbelief”); of the medieval Europeans, with their superstitions that the Jews drank the blood of Gentile children; of the Nazis; of the Communists; of genteel Etonians; of Afrocentric Black nationalists; of East Asian superstition; of rural American folk belief; of Islamic radicalism; of its left-wing apologists; of right-wing populists.
But if what we are asking is how the attack on Tree of Life began—not whom to blame, not who bears responsibility, since ultimately the killer does—we may start with Carolyn Ban, a Smith-, Harvard-, and Stanford-trained scholar of the European Union, who in 1997 moved to Pittsburgh to become the dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Fifty-four years old and single, she had relocated a lot in her academic career, and in Pittsburgh she at last felt ready to stay put. “Within a year, I said, ‘I don’t think I am moving anymore,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘This place feels like home.’ And I went looking for a choral group.” Ban had been raised in a nonobservant Jewish household, but in 1994 she had heard a concert of Jewish choral music in Albany and been “blown away.” Ban was not a choral singer, but she decided, “I am going to do this, and I loved it. It connected me to Judaism.” When she relocated to Pittsburgh, she found a singing group, but it didn’t last. “I needed a place to sing.”
She liked what she found at Dor Hadash, a small congregation in the progressive Reconstructionist movement, which emphasizes ongoing innovation and openness to change. There was no rabbi at Dor Hadash (Hebrew for “new generation”), which was part of the attraction. “I liked its informality,” Ban said. “I got a kick out of the fact that everyone on the bimah was female. Everyone sang, they sang with heart, and they sang very well. The services are often wonderful. They are quirky, because different people lead every time. It has a reputation that is well deserved as an intellectual congregation.”
Soon after Ban first attended Dor Hadash, her father died, and she needed a regular minyan, a quorum of ten other Jews, to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. Dor Hadash gave her that. In 2005 she was diagnosed with cancer, and Dor Hadash members were there for her during a monthlong recovery at home—“I was not alone any single day.” She kept up her involvement, and in 2017 she became the chairperson of the congregation’s social action committee. The committee “had been kind of moribund,” and when she called a meeting to talk about what the committee should focus on, the members present chose two issues: criminal justice reform, and immigration and refugees.
The committee began working with Jewish Family and Community Services (JF&CS), a large social service organization in Squirrel Hill, to help settle refugees in the area. When committee members wanted to begin advocating for better government policies toward refugees—to move from social services into social action—JF&CS recommended that Dor Hadash ally with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a storied organization founded in 1881 to help resettle Jews fleeing persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe. Over the years, HIAS expanded its mission to helping all refugees in the United States, most of them non-Jewish. And in the summer of 2018, Ban and another committee member got an email from HIAS about the National Refugee Shabbat: on October 20, participating synagogues would use the Shabbat service to honor, welcome, or just express solidarity with refugees.
“We said great!” Ban said. And she volunteered to lead Dor Hadash’s participation in the National Refugee Shabbat. As it happened, a bat mitzvah was scheduled for October 20, so Dor Hadash held its refugee Shabbat on October 6. The event basically involved Ban leading a discussion about refugees, but as the event’s convener, she was also responsible for publicity. “I said to the person at HIAS, ‘Oh, be sure to put us on the website of the list of congregations that are participating.’ And that’s how he”—the killer—“found us.”
At first, when she heard about the shooting, Ban didn’t make the connection to the synagogue’s support of refugees. She found out only in the evening, after the killings, as she sat at the Jewish Community Center with her friend Miri Rabinowitz, whose husband, Jerry, had been at the synagogue that morning. By then, Miri knew Jerry was dead; she was waiting to find out what was happening with his body.
“Somebody runs over and says, ‘Did you hear?’ And she says that this person—who I will not dignify by using his name—had posted that he hated Jews, because they were supporting Muslims to help bring in migrants who were going to kill white people. . . . And I heard later that he said, ‘Thank you HIAS for showing where your friends are.’ ” Ban was right: the killer had posted on the website Gab, “You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us? We appreciate the list of friends you have provided,” and he had linked to HIAS’s list of participating congregations.
The congregation that caught Robert Bowers’s eye was Dor Hadash, which since 2010 had rented space in the Tree of Life building. If he was looking for Jews to kill, it’s not surprising that he went to Squirrel Hill, the heart of Jewish Pittsburgh. Perhaps he was also seeking some sort of symbolic vengeance for the death of his father, who had shot himself to death in 1979 while awaiting trial for the rape of a twenty-year-old woman. It was alleged that Bowers’s father had carjacked the woman and had her drive to Squirrel Hill, where she parked her car and he assaulted her, before being caught in the act and arrested by police. Bowers was six years old when that happened, but maybe he knew that the beginning of his father’s end had come in Squirrel Hill, when he was thrown in the back of the officers’ K-9 van and carted off. Bowers now lived about thirty minutes away. Who knew what Squirrel Hill meant to him?
As Ban began to understand what had transpired, she “just sat there in shock.” She then turned to a friend and said, about the HIAS refugee Shabbat, “Well, we don’t wish we hadn’t done it. That’s what we were supposed to do.”
“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” the alleged shooter, Robert Bowers, wrote on Gab the morning of the attack. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” He then drove to the synagogue, bringing three Glock .357 handguns and a Colt AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, all loaded.
Depending on the route he took to get to Tree of Life, Bowers had either passed right in front of Shaare Torah, a Modern Orthodox synagogue, or missed it by a city block. Either way, he apparently never knew how close he had come to the greatest concentration of Jews in Pittsburgh that weekend. At Shaare Torah, hundreds of Sabbath-observant Jews were convening for the bar mitzvah of thirteen-year-old Nate Itzkowitz. Shaare Torah always locked its doors, so there is no telling what would have happened if he had stopped there. But if he had gotten inside, he would have encountered babies, children, teens, married couples, widows, widowers. He would have been shooting Jews in a barrel.
Instead, he drove a mile farther to Tree of Life, where by the time he arrived, at about 9:50 a.m., twenty-one worshippers and one custodian were inside. By some measures, Tree of Life is the oldest continuously operating synagogue in Pittsburgh, but in recent years it had suffered a steep decline in membership, from about a thousand families a few decades ago, to half as many in 2010, to a quarter as many, between 200 and 250 families, on this October morning. But even those numbers are too rosy. The reality is that most American synagogues, at least outside Orthodoxy, are lucky to get 10 percent of their members inside the building any given week—and indeed, Tree of Life often got fewer than twenty people on Shabbat. And those whom they got were mostly the old and the very old.
Like American culture generally, houses of worship yearn for the young. For a synagogue to have young people in the pews, for a bar to have young people on the stools, for a clothing store to have young people in the checkout line—they are the desired demographic. Children are the future. At churches and synagogues, though, youth aren’t reliable. With low-paying jobs, they can’t always pay membership dues; with young children to look after, they can’t always make it out of the house. It’s empty-nesters and pensioners, with their stable incomes and free blocks of time, who come on Thursday afternoon to prepare the Saturday kiddush lunch, who have time on a Tuesday morning to visit someone dying in hospice, who can rush over to shul to be the final, tenth person to fill out the minyan. The old people do the work.
For a synagogue to survive, it needs to be multigenerational; it needs young people to replace those who stop coming when they become infirm, move to Florida, or die. By that measure, Tree of Life was struggling, and the struggle was never more apparent than on Saturday mornings.
The youngest member of Tree of Life in synagogue that morning was David Rosenthal, who was fifty-four years old. Like his older brother, Cecil, he was born with Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition that can cause intellectual disabilities. David could not live on his own or hold down a regular job, but he had a life, with routines and friends and a sense of purpose. That life revolved around the streets of Squirrel Hill, where he had been raised and still lived, in supportive housing run by a nonprofit organization called Achieva. He knew the firefighters at the 18 Engine firehouse, he knew the mailman, he knew the proprietors of the small businesses he visited on his rounds. And he came to synagogue every week at Tree of Life. He liked to stand at the bimah next to Audrey Glickman, whose regular role on Shabbat was to chant the blessings and Psalms that begin the morning service. It was unclear how much he understood or what he thought he was doing, but he was there. How many weeks would they not have gotten to the quorum of ten without him?
Or without his older brother, Cecil? Cecil also lived in Squirrel Hill, where people knew him, talked with him, cared for him. At fifty-nine, Cecil was the second-youngest person in Tree of Life that morning, and he was among the first to get shot, moments before his brother.
“I never saw the shooter,” said Audrey Glickman, one of the eleven who got out alive. As usual, on this morning, David Rosenthal was standing next to her as she chanted, and a small group of regulars followed along in their prayer books. Then there was a loud noise: “All you had to do was hear the shooter before you started running out.”
Except on the High Holy Days, Tree of Life did not pray in the large sanctuary facing Shady Avenue; it had been decades since there were weekly crowds requiring a space that large. This Saturday, the worshippers were in the smaller Pervin Chapel, and at this hour there were twelve of them. Besides Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, Glickman, and the Rosenthal brothers, those in attendance included Stephen Weiss, sixty, a former executive director of the synagogue who was now a middle-school science teacher; Joe Charny, ninety, a psychiatrist and widowed father of three who had spent the last several decades as a dedicated lay leader at Tree of Life; ninety-seven-year-old Rose Mallinger, who was sitting next to her daughter, Andrea Wedner, sixty-one, a dental hygienist, who drove her mother to Tree of Life every week; Irv Younger, sixty-nine, who worked in real estate and had coached Little League baseball; Bernice and Sylvan Simon, eighty-four and eighty-six, a retired nurse and accountant, respectively, who had gotten married sixty-two years earlier in the very same small chapel in Tree of Life; and Joyce Fienberg, seventy-five, a retired researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. The custodian, Augie Siriano, was also in the building.
It sounded like a coatrack falling to the ground, several people reported. “That’s why people ran out to help, and that’s how they got shot,” Glickman said. Within seconds, as more cracking sounds came, the people still in services realized it was gunfire. “You could hear the shots down the hallway echoing off the marble walls, and so we took off. Rabbi Myers said, ‘Everyone get down!’ ”
At this point, Glickman and David Rosenthal turned and fled the room, leaving by a door at the front, near the ark holding the Torah. The shooter barreled toward the chapel, shooting Cecil Rosenthal, who fell to the floor, bleeding, then Irv Younger, just inside the chapel door. Once inside, the killer saw Charny, and the two men looked each other in the eye. The killer did not shoot, instead turning his gun toward other men and women in the pews. “Why he didn’t shoot me, I don’t know,” Charny later said. Charny followed Glickman and the younger Rosenthal brother out through the door at the head of the room, and Rabbi Myers went with them.
Four people had made it to safety, at least for the moment: the rabbi, Audrey Glickman, Joe Charny, and David Rosenthal. From outside the chapel, they heard Bernice Simon screaming that her husband had been shot. Glickman looked back into the room, then realized there was nothing she could do. Sylvan Simon was lying on the ground, shot in the back. “He was dead, and she was screaming, and I went back with David,” said Glickman. David—panicked, confused about what was going on, and scared for his brother—returned to the chapel, shouting that he wanted to call home. He was shot and killed. So were Bernice Simon, Rose Mallinger, and Joyce Fienberg. Stephen Weiss got out alive.
Copyright © 2021 by Mark Oppenheimer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.