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Synagogue shooting trial testimony: New Light rabbi receives the yarmulke he lost during attack

A yarmulke lays on the floor
Courtesy of U.S District Court Western District of Pennsylvania
During his escape from the synagogue, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman's yarmulke had fallen off his head onto the floor — a sacrilege in the Jewish faith.

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman had taken over leadership of the New Light congregation in 2010, but on Thursday he testified to the long history of New Light. The original members had come to America as immigrants from Romania, oftentimes fleeing pogroms. They settled in the Hill District, a poor area at the time, and built their own synagogue, until it moved into the living room of a house in Squirrel Hill in the 1950s.

That’s where the congregation stayed until just 11 months before the shooting that would change Rabbi Perlman’s life.

On October 27, 2018, an armed man walked into the Tree of Life synagogue and shot and killed 11 Jewish worshipers and injured six people, including four police officers. Robert Bowers has been charged with 63 federal counts, including 11 counts of a hate crime that resulted in death.

Bowers has attempted to plead guilty to the charges in exchange for a sentence of life in prison but prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. The first phase of his trial in U.S. District Court will focus on whether or not he is guilty — even though his defense lawyers have acknowledged he was the shooter. If a jury finds him guilty, a second phase of the trial will determine whether he should receive the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The recent move into the Tree of Life synagogue meant that Perlman wasn't familiar with the congregation's new space. And in fact had only, just the week before, discovered a new closet where there were many extra tables and chairs that were kept, as he prepared the space for a Friday night Shabbat dinner.

But that discovery allowed him to direct Carol Black, Melvin Wax and Barry Werber, to crawl to a space where they could hide. Perlman said, though he had no special training, that his instincts had kicked in; he thought by crawling they might avoid being hit by gunfire if the gunman reached their room.

But Perlman himself looked for somewhere else to escape to. He bumped into Stephen Weiss, who worked for the Tree of Life, as its education director, who had come downstairs to check on the members of New Light. "Something terrible has happened," Weiss told him.

A lectern faces rows of chairs in an empty room
Courtesy Of U.S District Court Western District Of Pennsylvania
The lower of the Tree of Life synagogue, where the New Light congregation was worshipping on Oct. 27, 2018

Perlman then saw a door that led outside he had never noticed before. He had to climb over a white fence to escape into a neighbor's yard next to the synagogue, he said, where he stayed until he was able to call over a policeman to ask for help.
During his escape, Perlman's yarmulke had fallen off his head onto the floor — a sacrilege in the Jewish faith. Perlman had originally bought the yarmulke in Israel on a trip that he took along with the Tree of Life synagogue. He didn't know what had happened to it, so he tried to find one on another trip to Israel, but was unable to. The yarmulke had written in Hebrew a quote from Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah: "There is nothing aside from Him."

But a month before he testified Thursday, he said, the FBI finally returned his yarmulke to him. Perlman wore the yarmulke to court on Thursday, showing the words to the jury and explaining their meaning.

"Our existence, the existence of each individual, each community, planet, solar system, all is God," he said. "And if we develop God consciousness that all is God, then there is no difference between me and you. That there is a combination, that we are merged in this God-ness. It's not the God who has a long beard and sits on a throne. This is a God that is very present to all aspects of his creation."

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.