The highly anticipated but long-awaited guilty verdict Friday of the gunman in the 2018 mass shooting at a Squirrel Hill synagogue — the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history — drew swift reaction from the Jewish community and civic leaders in Pittsburgh and around the world.
At a news conference held a block away from Pittsburgh’s federal courthouse and in statements from around the world, community leaders praised the strength and courage of the survivors who testified, and encouraged community members to take care of themselves as old wounds are reopened.
“We’re happy this first phase is beyond us,” Jeff Finkelstein, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told reporters at the Pennsylvanian apartments portico in Downtown. “While we’re pleased with the verdict, we know there is still more to come.”
The federal jury found Robert Bowers guilty on all 63 charges he faced, including 11 counts of obstruction of the free exercise of religious belief resulting in death, which carry the possibility of capital punishment.
The verdict was reached more than 4½ years after the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue that left 11 dead between the three Jewish congregations holding services in the building — Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash. Six others, including four Pittsburgh police officers, were injured in the attack.
Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who survived the shooting, said he was grateful to God, the law enforcement officers who rescued him from the building on the day of the attack and the U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case. But he added that his attention was now on leading his congregation in worship.
“Today, I’m focused on being with my congregation and praying, singing and clapping in praise of God as we do each Shabbat,” Myers said. “In the face of the horror our community has experienced, I can think of no better response than practicing my Jewish faith and leading worship.”
While some community members expressed a sense of relief, they also acknowledged difficult times ahead as the trial continues into a more contentious phase — with the jury deciding whether the shooter should receive the death penalty for his crimes. That portion of the trial will begin June 26.
“There is a degree of trepidation because this was just the first third of the trial,” said Stephen Cohen, a co-president of New Light Congregation. “In a sense, it was the least complicated part. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next two sections of the trial and what the defense will argue. We look forward to a final just conclusion, and a just punishment, for the horrible, horrendous deeds done 4½ years ago.”
Many community leaders thanked those who have helped them get to this point, including the U.S. Department of Justice and the jury.
Alan Hausman, the president of Tree of Life Congregation, offered the advice of the late Fred Rogers: “Look for helpers.”
“Every day for the past 4½ years, I’ve tried to look for the helpers: the public safety department and law enforcement officers, the attorneys, our fellow Pittsburghers who have continued to offer their care and support day in and day out,” Hausman said. “The way our community and people of all faiths came together after Oct. 27, 2018, has helped me and continues to inspire me and give me strength as we move forward.”
Jo Recht, the president of Congregation Dor Hadash, thanked first responders in particular, many of whom testified during the first phase.
“I want to emphasize our gratitude to the first responders,” she said. “Listening to their testimony [and] recognizing in detail what they did and how they risked their lives to try to save the lives of others was overwhelming.”
Some officials opined that the jury’s decision went in the direction of justice, although they said that the healing process will continue long after the full trial concludes.
“Today’s verdict was a step toward justice in Pittsburgh, but the horror and pain of Oct. 27, 2018, will never go away,” Gov. Josh Shapiro said. “My heart remains with the families of the 11 victims who were massacred as they worshipped at Tree of Life that day.”
“Today’s guilty verdict marks the beginning of delivering justice for this terrible tragedy but not the end,” said state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills. “Our Jewish friends and neighbors will spend decades to come healing from this attack and mourning the loss of the community members whose lives were lost. While we now have a guilty verdict, we must also continue fighting to end the hatred and secure safe, welcoming spaces for all of us, no matter how we pray or worship.”
State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, who represents Squirrel Hill, said that survivors who testified did so in service of a greater good.
“Let us remember that the survivors reopened these wounds for us, for humanity, because there has to be a record,” he said. “They told their stories, they told their histories, and now every one of us must grapple with that story.”
U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-Swissvale, said, “May the strength and resilience shown by the survivors, the victims’ family members and the entire Jewish community throughout this heartbreaking trial forever be an inspiration to us all.
“They inspire me to work even harder to confront the root causes of hatred, racism and bigotry so that no community has to live in fear of such senseless violence ever again.”
The verdict captured attention far outside Western Pennsylvania.
Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, said the verdict was “a vindication of the American system of justice. It is also an unmistakable reminder of Jew hatred and racial bigotry left unchecked.
“Society cannot remain complacent and only care about the lives of Jews after an atrocity has been committed,” he continued. “We call on all federal, state and municipal law enforcement agencies to take all necessary measures to protect synagogues and other Jewish institutions across the United States from any similar tragedy.”
“Justice has been served,” The American Jewish Committee said in a news release. “We realize it does little to ease the pain for the families and friends of the 11 people murdered at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh simply for being Jewish and practicing their faith. However, we hope this verdict allows them to continue the slow process of healing if not closure.”
Back in Pittsburgh, Jewish institutions that were instrumental in the response to the shooting said they continue to stand with the community and all who were impacted by the massacre.
As much as this tragedy has become an international news event, said Brian Schreiber, the president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, “for us, [it] will always be an intimate and neighborhood event.”
Jewish Family and Community Services will continue to provide therapeutic support to those in need, according to president and CEO Jordan Golin.
“In the coming weeks, we will continue our efforts to ensure accessible and comprehensive therapeutic services in the courtroom,” he said.
“Our team of highly trained professionals will continue to provide counseling, trauma-informed care, and resources to support bereaved and injured witnesses and families. Therapeutic support is available for all those who are impacted by the shooting — please reach out on 1027HealingPartnership.org to request assistance.”
Even as the jury left the courtroom to begin its deliberations, leaders of New Light Congregation issued a statement to the press: “There can be no forgiveness. Forgiveness requires two components: that it is offered by the person who commits the wrong and is accepted by the person who was wronged. The shooter has not asked — and the dead cannot accept.”
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. The PUP’s Steve Mellon contributed.