Synagogue shooting suspect makes court appearance; survivors recall ordeal

Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect appears in court

PITTSBURGH (AP) — In a city known for its Jewish population, the neighborhood was the faith’s spiritual heart and the synagogue a cornerstone of the community.

For generations, Squirrel Hill has been known as one of Pittsburgh's most special enclaves, where the Tree of Life temple stood as a welcoming landmark. Residents marveled over their good fortune to live in a place that seemed open, accepting and secure.

“People always felt safe here,” said Jules Stein, a lifelong resident of Squirrel Hill who until recently belonged to Tree of Life. “In one day, that changed.”

The man accused in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre was released from a hospital and turned over to federal authorities for a court appearance Monday on charges he killed 11 people in what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.

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Robert Gregory Bowers, 46, who was shot and wounded in a gun battle with police, arrived at the federal courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh less than two hours after his release from Allegheny General Hospital, according to U.S. marshals. A government car with a wheelchair visible inside could be seen arriving earlier.

Federal prosecutors set in motion plans to seek the death penalty against Bowers, who authorities say expressed hatred of Jews during the rampage and later told police that "I just want to kill Jews" and that "all these Jews need to die."

The first funeral — for Cecil Rosenthal and his younger brother, David — was set for Tuesday.

The community is split over Pres. Donald Trump’s announced visit on Tuesday. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who was leading services at the synagogue when the shooting began, told CNN “the President of the United States is always welcome” and “I’m a citizen. He’s my president. He is certainly welcome.”

However, more than 35,000 people signed an open letter written by 11 rabbis to the president saying he’s not welcome until he denounces white nationalism.

Survivors, meanwhile, began offering harrowing accounts of the mass shooting Saturday inside the Tree of Life synagogue.

Barry Werber said he found himself hiding in a dark storage closet as the gunman tore through the building and opened fire.

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“I don’t know why he thinks the Jews are responsible for all the ills in the world, but he’s not the first and he won’t be the last,” Werber, 76, said Sunday. “Unfortunately, that’s our burden to bear. It breaks my heart.”

The weekend massacre — which took place 10 days before the midterm elections — heightened tensions around the country, coming just a day after the arrest of the Florida man accused of sending a wave of pipe bombs to critics of President Trump.

The mail bomb attacks and the bloodshed in Pittsburgh set off debate over whether the corrosive political rhetoric in Washington and beyond contributed to the violence and whether Trump himself bears any blame.

The attack spurred a number of fundraising efforts. A crowdfunding campaign called Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue raised more than $155,000 for survivors and families, while a fundraiser led by a graduate student in Washington had taken in nearly $545,000 as of Monday, with funds to go to the congregation.

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Bowers killed eight men and three women before a tactical police team tracked him down and shot him, authorities said. Six other people were wounded, including four officers.

He apparently posted an anti-Semitic message on a social media account linked to him just a few minutes before the rampage. The Anti-Defamation League called it the deadliest U.S. attack on Jews.

It wasn't clear whether Bowers has an attorney to speak on his behalf. A message left with the federal public defender's office in Pittsburgh wasn't returned.

Synagogue shooting suspect posted anti-Semitic comments

Bowers was a long-haul trucker who worked for himself, U.S. Attorney Scott Brady said. Little else was known about the suspect, who had no apparent criminal record.

Bowers was charged with 11 state counts of criminal homicide, six counts of aggravated assault and 13 counts of ethnic intimidation. He was also charged in a 29-count federal criminal complaint that included counts of obstructing the exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death — a federal hate crime — and using a firearm to commit murder.

Synagogue shooting suspect appears in court

Tanya Cohen, who emigrated from Russia and lives near Tree of Life, always knew anti-Semitism existed but never thought it would strike so close.

“It seemed like here, those things were really far away and really removed from our reality,” said Cohen, whose 12-year-old daughter was shaken by the sight of rifle-carrying men in fatigues passing by their home. “Those are the things that we read in a newspaper or in a book or watch in a movie.”

The former leader of Tree of Life, Rabbi Alvin Berkun, was dressed and ready to head to the synagogue on Saturday when his wife asked him to stay home because she didn't feel well. He said the congregation only posted security officers on the High Holidays, but even so never felt unsafe there.

“The community is very resilient and we will rebound,” he said, “but it will leave a scar forever.”

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Others, though grateful for the seeming bubble in which they lived, always feared such hatred could visit them.

A 2017 report on Pittsburgh's Jewish community by Brandeis University researchers found 70 percent of area Jews were a little or somewhat concerned about anti-Semitism. Older Jews expressed the most fear: One-third of those 65 and older said they were very concerned, versus 10 percent of those 18 to 34.

The report estimated about 50,000 Jews call Greater Pittsburgh home.

About 1 in 6 respondents said they had directly experienced anti-Semitism in the preceding year, mostly involving comments, insults, jokes and stereotypes. One person quoted in the report said, while walking to a synagogue, a motorist yelled "dumb Jew" and spat at them, before warning them to "go back to Squirrel Hill." Another told of a campaign sign for Donald Trump being put in their yard with a note saying it was from their "neighborhood youth Hitler."

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"I have never been a person to say this could never happen here," said Aviva Lubowsky, a lifelong resident of Squirrel Hill who attended Hebrew school at Tree of Life as a child. "Ever since 9/11, sitting in synagogue for the High Holidays, I feel like we're sitting ducks."

Ren Finkel, who moved to Pittsburgh from San Diego six years ago, echoed that sentiment.

"I wouldn't say I was expecting it," Finkel said while attending a small vigil. "But I don't know that surprise is necessarily what I was feeling either."

There have been scattered incidents of anti-Semitism in the area over the years that have occasionally drawn concern, including spray-painted swastikas. In 1986, a rabbinical student from Toronto visiting his in-laws was shot on the street in a killing many believed was motivated by the victim's appearance. He was bearded and wore a yarmulke with a long black coat, black suit and black hat — hallmarks of Orthodox Judaism.

As jarring and violent as that killing was, though, it came nowhere close to the impact of Saturday's attack.

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“It was unsettling, but somehow I don’t recall that there was a sense that it was part of a larger phenomenon, that it was going to reflect a wave,” said Barbara Burstin, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who teaches about Judaism and has authored books including “Steel City Jews: A History of Pittsburgh and its Jewish Community.” ''It didn’t seem to be representative of a larger phenomenon, but now it definitely does."

Three congregations were conducting Sabbath services in the synagogue when the attack began just before 10 a.m. in the tree-lined residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh and the hub of the city’s Jewish community.

Speaking at a vigil in Pittsburgh on Sunday night, Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said about a dozen people had gathered in the main sanctuary when Bowers walked in and began shooting. Seven of his congregants were killed, he said.

"My holy place has been defiled," he said.

A person pauses in front of Stars of David with the names of those killed in a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, in Pittsburgh, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
A person pauses in front of Stars of David with the names of those killed in a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, in Pittsburgh, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) (Source: Matt Rourke)

In the basement, four members of New Light congregation were just starting to pray — with two others in the kitchen — when they heard crashing coming from upstairs, looked out the door and saw a body on the staircase, Werber recalled in an interview.

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman closed the door and pushed them into a large supply closet, he said. As gunshots echoed upstairs, Werber called 911 but was afraid to say anything, for fear of making any noise.

When the shots subsided, he said, another congregant, Melvin Wax, opened the door, only to be shot.

“There were three shots, and he falls back into the room where we were,” Werber said. “The gunman walks in.”

Apparently unable to see Werber and the other congregants in the darkness, Bowers walked back out.

Werber called the gunman “a maniac” and “a person who has no control of his baser instincts.”

The youngest of the 11 dead was 54, the oldest 97. The toll included a husband and wife, professors, dentists and physicians.

A woman touches a tree as she pauses near a memorial in front at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. Tree of Life shooting suspect Robert Gregory Bowers is expected to appear in federal court Monday. Authorities say he expressed hatred toward Jews during the rampage Saturday and in later comments to police. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
A woman touches a tree as she pauses near a memorial in front at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. Tree of Life shooting suspect Robert Gregory Bowers is expected to appear in federal court Monday. Authorities say he expressed hatred toward Jews during the rampage Saturday and in later comments to police. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) (Source: Matt Rourke)

Bowers shot his victims with an AR-15, used in many of the nation's mass shootings, and three handguns, all of which he owned legally and had a license to carry, according to a law enforcement official who wasn't authorized to discuss the investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Of the six survivors, four remained in the hospital Sunday night, and two — including a 40-year-old officer — were in critical condition.

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German Jews began arriving in Pittsburgh in the 1840s, followed later by Eastern European Jews. Tree of Life broke off from a reform congregation in 1865, moving to the Oakland neighborhood before building its current Squirrel Hill home after World War II.

Today, some 20 synagogues are clustered in the leafy, well-kept area.

Sarah Elbling Straus, a 41-year-old who grew up in Squirrel Hill, said she felt so secure in the neighborhood that she never experienced anti-Semitism until she left for college. She now lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and has been active in her new congregation, including on security issues.

“You never think it would happen here,” she said, “until it happens.”

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