The second day of testimony in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre trial continued to establish that three Jewish congregations worshipped, studied, socialized and lost members at the Tree of Life building in Squirrel Hill.
Eleven worshippers from all three —Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, Dor Hadash and New Light — died after being gunned down at the building on Oct. 27, 2018, in the worst attack on Jewish people in U.S. history.
The U.S. government is seeking the federal death penalty for the accused shooter, Robert Bowers, who told police he attacked because he hates Jews.
Among the charges the prosecution must prove is obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs involving an attempt to kill.
At the federal courthouse, Downtown, Wednesday morning, one of the witnesses the government called was Carol Black, 71. She described being present at a worship service when the attack started and seeing one worshipper get shot while she hid behind a door in a dark room.
She testified that, in a “rededicating” to the Jewish faith in which she was raised, she years earlier had joined the New Light congregation and became involved with her brother, Richard Gottfried. At New Light’s regular Saturday morning services in a rented basement sanctuary in the Tree of Life building, she would join him in serving in the important role of gabbai, standing on both sides of the person reading the Torah to make sure the scripture is read correctly.
On the morning of Oct. 27, she recounted, she was greeted at the building by Tree of Life member Cecil Rosenthal. (“He said to me, ‘Hello, pretty lady,’ and I said hello.”) She was a few minutes late, so she descended the stairs and took her usual seat in the New Light sanctuary with a few other worshippers, while her brother and another member, Dan Stein, talked in the neighboring kitchen. She was pulling from her bag her yarmulke and tallit when she heard loud sounds that appeared to be coming from the first floor.
She said congregant Barry Werber looked up the stairway and said someone was lying on the stairs, and the noises continued, and, “I realized that it was gunfire. … You just don’t go to a synagogue and expect to hear gunfire.”
New Light Rabbi Jonathan Perlman hurriedly directed her, Werber and Mel Wax through doors behind the podium into a dark room. During a pause in the loud sounds, Wax peeked out the doors, was shot and fell backward.
From her hiding spot, in the gap at the door’s hinges, Black sensed someone step into the room. “I saw a shadow come, and I saw a shadow go.”
Hiding in the dark of a nearby closet but feeling like he was alone, Werber testified Wednesday that he also saw Wax go down, and a male figure holding a long gun step over his body into the room, and then step out. “He couldn’t see us. It was too dark.”
Werber testified that, terrified, he managed to dial 911 on his outdated flip phone and was trying to tell authorities what was happening without giving himself away.
Prosecutors played for the jury his and other 911 calls as well as videos taken outside as police and medics led the survivors from chaos to eventual safety.
Daniel Leger was carried out, because when he rushed out of the room where he was preparing to lead the morning’s gathering of Dor Hadash, he — a nurse — and his friend Jerry Rabinowitz — a medical doctor — ran toward the loud noises in order to help. Leger wound up shot and lying incapacitated on a nearby stairway.
Knowing from experience with others that he was dying, he prayed and reviewed his life, including his “wonderful” family and friends. As he testified Wednesday afternoon, “I was ready to go.” But after about 40 minutes, a medic found him.
Their fellow Dor Hadash leader Martin Gaynor had recognized the sound of powerful gunshots and turned the other way and was able to burst through doors to exit the building and run a few blocks to where he borrowed a neighbor’s phone to almost breathlessly call 911.
Prosecutors asked him, as they had Leger, if he ever saw Rabinowitz after that day.
After a long pause, Gaynor replied, “No, I never saw Jerry alive again.”
The building’s custodian, August Siriano, testified that when he ran toward the “BANG-BANG-BANG” in the Tree of Life chapel, he found Cecil Rosenthal face down in the doorway bleeding from his head, and he also saw an ammunition magazine on the floor. Siriano, too, was able to run out of the building.
The first witness the government called just after 9:30 Wednesday morning was Dor Hadash member Wendy Kopee, who was vice president of youth education there and served students from her congregation and Tree of Life.
Tuesday’s testimony focused on that of Tree of Life Congregation’s Rabbi Jeffrey Myers.
Once again on Wednesday, the defense had no questions for any of the government witnesses and no objections to the photographs, videos and audio submitted as exhibits.
Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, spoke to reporters across the street from the courthouse late Wednesday afternoon, reflecting on the “intense and difficult” testimony of the last two days. While many people have expressed concern for the witnesses who are offering that testimony, she said they have “good support” and are being cared for by family, friends and professionals.
Feinstein acknowledged that members of the general public may be experiencing secondary trauma stemming from the intensity of the testimony. The Partnership, Feinstein said, has seen “a lot more people coming into our offices the last two days” seeking support, which she encourages.
Other avenues of support, she said, could include religious organizations, support groups or exercise groups, “where people can be together and know they are not alone.”
The trial continues Thursday morning and is expected to continue for two months. PJC
Bob Batz Jr. is interim editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress, where this first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.