Survivors testify as synagogue massacre trial enters third day
10/27 TrialTrial is expected to last until late July

Survivors testify as synagogue massacre trial enters third day

Testimony from Rabbi Jonathan Perlman and Stephen Weiss

Tree of Life building (Photograph by Jim Busis)
Tree of Life building (Photograph by Jim Busis)

Shabbat services had just begun in the Tree of Life’s Pervin chapel on the morning of Oct. 27, 2018, when Stephen Weiss heard a metal bang and the crash of shattering glass.

“My first thought when I heard that was that the custodian dropped a tray of glasses,” he said.

Two fellow congregants, Irving Younger and Cecil Rosenthal, left to help.

Both would soon be dead.

As Rabbi Jeffrey Myers finished an opening prayer, Weiss got up and walked to the chapel doorway.

It was then that he realized what was happening.

“I could see shell casings bouncing on the floor,” he said. “I could see them bounce across the floor directly in front of me.”

As a man familiar with guns, he knew them to be semiautomatic casings.

His peaceful place of worship was under armed assault.

He fled the chapel and headed downstairs to warn another small congregation, New Light, that was also holding services that morning.

“I was going to make sure that they left their worship space,” he said.

He eventually made it outside onto the street, where he told two responding police officers that someone was shooting inside. The officers immediately ran into the building and took fire.

When the morning was done, 11 worshippers from three congregations were dead at the hands of a hate-filled killer toting an AR-15.

Weiss’ testimony came on the third day of the federal death penalty trial of that man, Robert Bowers.

His lawyers are not questioning that he did it. During testimony thus far, they aren’t even asking questions of the witnesses.

Their only goal is to later convince a jury to spare his life. The Justice Department is seeking the defendant’s execution in the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Prosecutors say he drove to the Tree of Life building from his home in Baldwin, seething with hatred for Jews. He parked outside in a handicapped spot, shot out the glass front doors and then rampaged inside against helpless congregants, most of them elderly.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo Song said he shot everyone he saw. He ended up murdering half the people in the building that day in the worst attack on Jews in U.S. history.

Killed were Bernice Simon, 84, and her husband Sylvan Simon, 86; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; David Rosenthal, 54, and his brother, Cecil, 59; Dan Stein, 71; Joyce Fienberg, 75; Irving Younger, 69; Melvin Wax, 87; Richard Gottfried, 65; and Rose Mallinger, 97.

After defense and prosecution spent a month picking a jury, the trial began Tuesday with testimony from survivors and the playing of 911 calls.

Earlier on Thursday, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of the New Light congregation on the lower level recounted hearing gunfire and shattering glass upstairs.

“We’re in danger,” he said he told his congregants. “Follow me.”

He told everyone to get down and they crawled into a darkened storage area. One of the members, Melvin Wax, was hard of hearing. As they hid in the dark room, Perlman said Wax wanted to know what was happening.

“He said ‘Whatever it is, it’s over,'” Perlman recalled and saw Wax move to take a peek out the door.

Perlman told him not to look and to stay away from the door.

“He wouldn’t listen,” Perlman said.

Bowers shot Wax in the chest and killed him.

In later testimony, Audrey Glickman described her actions as she began to lead the Tree of Life congregation service that morning and heard the same crash as the others and then shooting.

“The echoing of the machine gun fire was unmistakable,” she said.

She and her 90-year-old friend, Joe Charny, fled up the stairs and tried to get David Rosenthal, brother of Cecil, to go with them. Both brothers were developmentally challenged. David was agitated, saying he had to call home, and wouldn’t leave. Bowers murdered him.

As they made their escape, Glickman said Charny told her he had stood face to face with the shooter at the beginning of the rampage.

She said he told her had looked into his blue eyes and down the barrel of his “big, long gun.” But Bowers didn’t shoot him. He got away.

Charny died this year of natural causes at age 95.

“He really wanted to testify,” Glickman said.

Pittsburgh Police Officer Daniel Mead took the stand in late afternoon and recounted how the defendant shot him in the hand through the front door glass of the building. He said he had just arrived with his partner, hugged the walls and rounded a corner to see the shooter “posting up on me” four feet away inside the building.

“I could hear the shot, and I could see the muzzle flash,” he said.

A slug hit his left wrist and came out his hand. His hand went limp.

On police radio transmissions, jurors heard him screaming and swearing that he’d been shot. They also heard him yelling at another officer to “get in the ball game,” meaning get into the action and do something.

Mead has not been able to return to work as an officer.

Prosecutor Soo Song asked him why he tried to enter the building that day.

“It’s what we do,” he said. PJC

Torsten Ove writes for the Pittsburgh Union Progress, where this first appeared. He can be reached at This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.

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