Congregants question how to rebuild after Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

“It’s a pretty shattering thing. Even if you don’t have physical injury, you just feel like your world is so much more fragile and fractured.”

People gathered to mourn the loss of life as they hold a vigil for the victims of Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US, October 27, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/JOHN ALTDORFER)
People gathered to mourn the loss of life as they hold a vigil for the victims of Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US, October 27, 2018
Seymour Drescher was mere yards from the entrance of Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday morning, arriving early to help lay out books for Shabbat services, when a man ran over ordering him back into his car.
“I was a minute-and-a-half away from what happened,” Drescher, a historian and professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. “I was around the corner from the building. Someone said, get back in and leave– there are gunshots.”
As he drove away from the building, home to three different congregations in Pittsburgh’s idyllic Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, police and ambulances from a station two blocks down rushed past him in the opposite direction. He knew what was unfolding would result in tragedy. But even then, Drescher could not imagine the scale of damage that Robert Bowers, the shooter, would inflict on his community.
“It’s a pretty shattering thing. Even if you don’t have physical injury, you just feel like your world is so much more fragile and fractured,” he said. “If this person was looking to shatter the people who were central to this community, he achieved that aim.”
As law enforcement released the names of Bower’s victims on Sunday morning, the reality of the shooting began sinking in with surviving congregants. Several who spoke to the Post described the late Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, as a linchpin of his community, always at shul early each Saturday to help prepare for services. So too was Daniel Leger, 70, who suffered gunshot wounds to his chest and remains in the hospital for treatment.
“It’s all been pretty devastating, but the fact that we lost one of our dearest, dearest members – we’re trying to process that,” said Seymour’s wife, Ruth, herself a Holocaust survivor. “We knew two of them – and both of these guys, I will tell you, provided so much leadership.”
One Squirrel Hill native, Joel Rubin, learned the news by text from a friend on Saturday morning and panicked: His parents attend Tree of Life nearly every weekend. He called them twice to no answer.
As this reporter shared the names of the dead with Rubin for the first time, he expressed despondence.
“Oh God – this was my fear. These were people right in the middle. Parents – and their children,” he said, pausing to process. “This is the age range obviously where they have adult children, and they may still have parents, and so this is going to cause such deep extended pain.”
Rubin’s parents did not show up that day. But they were there the night before, taking part a service that Joel’s mother, Lois, described as one of the most joyful she had witnessed in some time.
“We’re a small congregation, just a couple hundred people, but there was a nice crowd on Friday night – about 50 people. And everyone was feeling great about the evening, so it was just a shock the next morning,” said Lois, who also knew two victims of the attack. She described Rabinowitz not only as a leader of his congregation, but of the wider community, with one of the most popular geriatrics practices in town.
“Jerry was just such a good person – such a good human being,” said Rubin. “He always had a smile on his face. He was always doing something for the good of the congregation.”
Tree of Life does not use metal detectors and, in the past, was only protected by off-duty security guards on high holy days. Congregants are already expressing support for armed guards. “They would have to be armed to be of any value,” one concluded. But those who spoke to the Post agreed that the solution was a mere band-aid on the wider problem of proliferation of automatic weapons.
Congregants of the Reconstructionist group housed at Tree of Life describe members there as progressive and socially active, always engaged in projects for the greater good. They are now aware of the message of their attacker, who on social media platforms attacked Jewish communities – such as those at Tree of Life – engaged in efforts to help resettle refugees in America.
His message, and his access to weapons of mass killing, have forced upon them a political discussion they would rather avoid in a time of grief and loss.
“It’s perfectly obvious that the shooter was making connections, for example, between this caravan coming up through central America and HIAS,” said Drescher, referring to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a target of Bower’s online. “They become the people who are wielding a political weapon, and it is aimed at us. And if the head of state is fueling this by saying, ‘These are enemies, these are enemies’ – how can you say this is violence not caused by our political discourse?”
Only 10 days before the midterm elections, that sentiment permeated Pittsburgh as vigils were held for the dead, the injured, and the wider community begins the long process of healing. One mass gathering in Squirrel Hill featured a haunting Havdalah service and a call by many for change through the vote.
Words in a summertime web post from a rabbi at Tree of Life Synagogue, Jeffrey Myers, gained added resonance: “Unless there is a dramatic turnaround in the midterm elections,” he wrote after the Parkland shootings in Florida, “I fear that the status quo will remain unchanged, and school shootings will resume.”
The victims in Saturday’s massacre, the most deadly shooting targeting Jewish Americans in history, were all between the ages of 54 and 97.
Joyce Fienburg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil and David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon and Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger were named as the deceased by law enforcement.
Members questioned whether the ground on which Tree of Life stands could ever be reclaimed from the tragedy.
“How will any of us feel going back in there? I can’t even imagine it,” Lois said.
“We will get through it,” she added, “but we will have lost our innocence there. We’ll all be nervous, hurt, damaged.”