Hours after jurors concluded that the man responsible for the most violent antisemitic attack in U.S. history should be put to death, survivors of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and victims’ families exited the Joseph F. Weis U.S. Courthouse and returned to a space where they had gathered almost five years ago.
Inside Squirrel Hill’s Jewish Community Center, the nearly 30-person group responded to Wednesday’s verdict, described their unexpected fellowship and discussed the road ahead.
“We’re members of a club that shouldn’t exist,” said Tree of Life Congregation’s Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, a survivor of the attack.
“All of the people behind me, we all stood together as a family, and we were there for each other,” said Amy Mallinger, granddaughter of shooting victim Rose Mallinger.
“After all these years and months of us working together with each other, supporting each other and loving each other, we have become a family,” said Carol Black, sister of Richard Gottfried, who was killed in the massacre. “It’s been wonderful.”
For about an hour, survivors of the attack and loved ones of Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger spoke inside the JCC’s Levinson Hall, which served as a reunification center on Oct. 27, 2018.
“About five years ago, many of us were right here in this room. This was the space where the families awaited news about their loved ones,” Michele Rosenthal, sister of massacre victims Cecil and David Rosenthal, said. “Today marks the end of a very long chapter.”
Jurors spent the past 36 days hearing about the killer’s vile hatred of Jews and its horrifying manifestation. Although the defense argued his actions were the result of schizophrenia and epilepsy, the jury was unconvinced. The defendant’s belief system, jurors determined, was not spurred by delusions accompanying mental illness but rather an outgrowth of the common hatred regularly espoused on some social media platforms.
The jurors’ findings — alongside the dedication of prosecutors and Judge Robert J. Colville — demonstrated a sound judicial system at work, several survivors and victims’ families said.
“Today we have received an immense embrace in the halls of justice,” Myers said.
“Finally, justice has been served, and even though nothing will bring my dad back, I feel like a weight has been lifted and I can breathe a sigh of relief,” said Leigh Stein, daughter of Daniel Stein.
The family of Bernice and Sylvan Simon praised jurors in a written statement: “In the course of performing their civic duty, they unselfishly endured great personal sacrifice, time away from family, friends and work, as well as being disconnected from many everyday activities. They patiently and very attentively listened to all of the testimony and scrutinized the voluminous amount of evidence presented throughout the entire trial. We fully respect their verdict and decisions.”
Audrey Glickman, a survivor of the shooting, also lauded the jury, and agreed that the system functioned properly, but she said responsibilities remain.
“Justice is something we have to tend continually,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do going forward.”
Rabbi Doris Dyen, a survivor of the shooting, said her hope is that the verdict is “not the end but the beginning of a path towards peace.”
For some, that road involves spirituality.
Martin Gaynor, a survivor of the attack, told the Chronicle that before leaving the courthouse Wednesday, he turned to Daniel Leger, a fellow survivor, and made plans for religious study.
Since Jan. 4, 2020, Gaynor and Leger have participated in Daf Yomi — a 7½-year daily study of the Babylonian Talmud — in memory of their friend Jerry Rabinowitz.
The trial, however, complicated that practice.
Despite bringing copies of Tractate Gittin to court, studying the text proved taxing given the environment. Now that the verdict has been delivered, Gaynor said, the chavrutas (study partners) can renew old habits.
Praying and studying are “core centering parts of my day,” Gaynor said. “This is what we do. It’s part of being Jewish. It’s a spiritual enterprise.”
And there’s another aspect to learning, Gaynor said: “I feel like I will be engaging with Jerry again.”
For some, the verdict represented a simultaneous pull forward and back.
During the past five years, community members and people worldwide learned about many of the victims and their passions, Michele Rosenthal said.
“My brothers were dedicated community members and synagogue-goers,” she said. “If there’s a bright spot or a sign of light it is that the community and more people got to know my brothers, and my only hope is that they live their lives as good as my brothers lived theirs.”
Anthony Fienberg, Joyce Fienberg’s son, told the Chronicle that Aug. 2 wasn’t the first time he has been asked about “moving forward.”
“We’ve been asking ourselves this question for such a long time,” he said. “And there may not be hard and fast answers. But what is for sure is that the more we speak and transmit Torah, the stronger the Jewish people will be.”
For Fienberg, Jewish wisdom offers insight on the verdict’s timing.
Along with the jury reaching its decision on 15th of Av — a Hebrew date that the Talmud describes as one of happiness and love — the verdict occurred 248 weeks after Oct. 27, 2018.
He noted that “248 is a significant number.”
According to rabbinic tradition, not only are there 248 limbs in the body and 248 words in the Shema prayer, but also there are 248 positive mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah.
There have been 248 weeks that have passed since that Shabbat when Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger were murdered inside a synagogue, but “we have to think about the positive,” Anthony Fienberg said. “Learning Torah is a commandment, and so when we have the occasion to speak about these n’shamot [souls] whose bodies were physically taken from us, and we speak words of Torah, we can hopefully continue the commandment of perpetuating Judaism from one generation to the next.”
Throughout this trial the endurance of Judaism was central, a head-covered Gaynor told the Chronicle.
Whether it was walking into the courtroom wearing a yarmulke or continuing Jewish rituals, he said, those actions emphasized that “we’re here, and we are Jews, and we will keep doing what we do. And nothing is going to stop that.”
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.