Tree of Life Congregation’s Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers has been a national face of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
He’s appeared on the “Today Show” and in National Geographic, was interviewed by the Associated Press and has been featured in documentaries. He’s arguably the most public survivor of the attack while also serving as the spiritual leader of his congregation.
Myers understood shortly after the attack that people would want to hear from Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, and, given that the shooting occurred at a synagogue, they would want the words of a rabbi.
“That’s part of my responsibility,” he said. “That’s the mission that God has given me. Like Jonah, there was no escape. I couldn’t get on a vessel and go to Tarshish. I accepted that responsibility and tried to do my best.”
The man who stormed the Tree of Life building and murdered 11 Jewish community members in the most violent antisemitic attack in U.S. history was sentenced to death on Aug. 3. Myers was a witness at his trial. Sitting in the courtroom was both traumatic and awe-inspiring, the rabbi said. The experience brought the survivors, victims and families together.
“Everyone didn’t necessarily know each other before,” he said. “Through this shared experience we all got to know each other, and it just made tighter bonds for what some are calling ‘our club.’”
Throughout the trial, Myers filled multiple roles. He was a witness and survivor forced to grapple with the emotions that come along with a mass shooting. At the same time, he was the leader of his congregation, and others looked to him for spiritual and emotional support.
He said there were periods when he had trouble performing both roles.
“There were times I just couldn’t do it, when I just knew that I had to take care of me because I couldn’t take care of anyone else,” he said.
Still, he said he’s mindful that in his role as rabbi, people see him as a communal healer.
“Everyone in our community, Jew and gentile, have varying degrees of being a victim in this, and they come seeking spiritual health and a path for healing,” he said. “That’s just a permanent characteristic of the nature of this event.”
He said that he has been able to find his path to healing as well. Sometimes it comes unexpectedly; other times it’s more deliberate, as when he led a healing service on the Shabbat immediately following the end of the trial.
Members stayed long after the service was finished. The rabbi sat back and watched the experience unfold.
“My wife asked me, ‘Is everything all right?’ And I said, ‘I’m just taking this all in because I’m watching healing,’” he recalled. “So, it’s not that you can describe what that should be or what you can do — it just sort of naturally happens.”
One common discussion in the larger community post-trial concerns the idea of forgiveness. Judaism does not allow for a person to be forgiven for an act if they haven’t sought forgiveness. The Pittsburgh synagogue shooter has not expressed remorse over his actions. Myers said that not having the opportunity to forgive the shooter hasn’t been difficult.
“It’s just an acceptance of reality,” he said. “Sometimes there are no answers. And I think, for my own well-being, since I can’t find answers, to continue to do that is not going to be productive.”
Focusing on forgiving the shooter, or on his lack of remorse, Myers said, can perpetuate victimhood.
“So, I’ve made the conscious decision to not focus on that reality,” he said. “I will say that, at the end of our lives, from a Jewish perspective, we each appear before God and give an explanation. That happens to Jews and gentiles.”
God, he said, will have only one question for the shooter: Why?
“His answer will determine the dispensation of his soul for eternity,” the rabbi said. “To me, that’s probably the most terrifying moment I could ever imagine. So that’s not for me to worry about.”
For his own future and that of Tree of Life, Myers said there is still much to be determined.
Since the attack, the congregation has been housed at Rodef Shalom Congregation and has held High Holidays services at Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside.
“We’re still a homeless congregation,” he noted, “and we’ll certainly be that way for another two years. So, when you don’t have a home to grab onto as your foundation and your safety, what is home? What does it look like? What is being a Jewish community in that sense look like?”
Moving forward, he said, the congregation will honor its 160-year history and acknowledge that the synagogue is standing on the shoulders of those who came before — while continuing to chart a new course for the next generation.
It’s hard to be visionary, though, he said.
“We’re still trying to work on what we can be because I think there was incredible potential to take the foundational aspects of what any synagogue should be, which is that trifold house of prayer, of study and of gathering, and expending it,” he added. “What does 10/27 mean to all of those? I think we’re still grappling with that.”
What’s important, he said, is what emanates from the attack, something the congregation is still struggling to figure out.
“I think we’re still in the process of becoming,” he said. “I think the past five years of being in limbo have left limited opportunities to dream about it, but I think now that we’ve got the yoke of the trial off of our shoulders, there are opportunities to really engage fully in the creative thought process.”
Because no one has had the same experience as those who were in the Tree of Life building during the attack, he said, there is no road map for the congregation, which is beginning the work of creating something new.
Myers serves on the interim governance board of the nonprofit Tree of Life Inc. Not to be confused with the congregation, the organization’s mission is to educate and inspire individuals and communities from across the nation to recognize and stand up against antisemitism. It aspires to create a new Tree of Life building on the synagogue’s site at the corner of Wilkins and Shady avenues.
The rabbi likens the work to creating with Legos of all shapes, sizes and colors instead of a prefabricated Lego kit where the builder follows a blueprint.
“We’re all trying to go through the process, including some really bright people from all around the world in a variety of fields, of coming up with a plan that works best for us — something that we can grasp but also pull in the interest of many different people because there’s much work to do, and it requires a lot of collaboration, a lot of thoughtful partners,” he said.
Myers said there are a few things to keep in mind, whether it’s combating what he calls the “h” word (hate) or preparing for the High Holidays. “It’s about building relationships,” he said. “Working together, embracing what Fred Rogers preached for decades: loving our neighbors. Sometimes the get-up-and-go is not always there. It’s easy to be frustrated by the constant negative news cycles. Where does one find hope? We just began Elul singing Psalm 27. It ends powerfully with hope in God. There is hope. We just have to find ways to embrace that and integrate it into our beings to be hopeful people.”
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