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Leaders welcome verdict in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial, pray for lasting justice

 A small wooden star of David with paint on it that says Stronger Than Hate.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Moments after a federal jury handed down guilty verdicts on all 63 counts facing synagogue shooter Robert Bowers, faith leaders and elected officials alike praised the outcome — but lamented the heartache that accompanied it.

Tree of Life Congregation Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, an attack survivor, said he was “grateful to God for getting us to this day. And I am thankful for the law enforcement who ran into danger to rescue me, and the U.S. Attorney who stood up in court to defend my right to pray.”

“My hope is that today provides some level of comfort and helps to ease the pain, even if ever so slightly,” for survivors and victims’ families, said Tree of Life CEO Carole Zawatsky. “Let us, this day, reaffirm our resolve to bring light into our world and keep the memory of each of the victims in our hearts as we do the work of Tikkun HaOlam, repairing our broken world.”

“Every day for the past four and a half years, I’ve tried to look for the helpers: the public safety department and law enforcement officers, the attorneys, our fellow Pittsburgers who have continued to offer their care and support day in and day out,” said Tree of Life President Alan Hausman. “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.”

The JCC of Greater Pittsburgh noted that the guilty verdicts were "just the first phase" of the trial, "as we now begin the penalty phase that will continue through the summer." Its leaders observed that the shooting and its aftermath resonated within Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and well beyond it.

"While the impact of this event has far-reaching implications on a national and global stage, it will forever remain a deeply personal and lasting experience in our neighborhood," the organization said in a statement. "May the memories of the 11 individuals taken from us that day forever be a blessing."

Other organizations also cautioned that the sentencing phase of the trial would impose burdens on a grieving community.

In a statement, Jewish Family and Community Services said it would continue to provide support to victims and their families "while the judicial process continues forward towards sentencing." The organization, which provides support and services to those in need, urged those impacted by the shooting to reach out for help

'We stand together as a community in the wake of the verdict," the organization said.

The World Jewish Congress, which represents Jewish communities in 100 countries, hailed the verdict as "a vindication of the American system of justice" as well as "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," said Congress President Ronald S. Lauder. "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."

National Director and CEO Michael Masters of the Secure Community Network, a safety and security organization that protects and advises the Jewish community in North America, echoed Lauder's remarks, saying the trial provides a reminder of "the alarming rise in hate and antisemitism we have seen in recent years in the U.S."

"In the face of adversity, however, our Jewish community has become stronger," Masters said. "We have not succumbed to the forces of evil and violence, which have sought to eradicate Jewish life and diffuse Jewish identity. We do not have that luxury. We have risen up. We survive and thrive."

Local officials also hailed the verdict but said it was only the first step in binding up the wounds Bowers had inflicted.

“Today’s guilty verdict marks the beginning of delivering justice for this terrible tragedy, but not the end, said state Sen. Jay Costa, whose district includes the Tree of Life synagogue.

"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," Costa said. "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.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey called for prayer for the survivors of "this horrific tragedy" and the families and friends of those who died.

"Five years ago, our city was shaken when 11 lives were taken in an act of antisemitic hate. Today, we remember the lives of Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Melvin Wax, Daniel Stein, Irving Younger, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Joyce Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, Cecil Rosenthal and David Rosenthal. May their memories be a blessing.

"I hope that today helps our Jewish brothers and sisters, and our entire city, begin their journey towards healing," the mayor added. "As we continue to eliminate hate from our beloved city, remember: Pittsburgh is stronger than hate."

Calling the shooting "one of the darkest days" in Pittsburgh history, city Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt noted that Public Safety personnel who responded to the shooting "have been indelibly marked by what they experienced that day."

"Eleven lives were taken in a horrific act of hate in a place that should have been a sanctuary of peace for members of the three congregations worshipping inside the Tree of Life synagogue," he said. "The trial has inevitably ripped open wounds that may never truly heal. It is the Department of Public Safety's fervent hope that the verdict brings the victims’ families, and our personnel involved, a measure of justice for those whose lives were lost."

Other responses from Pittsburgh and beyond:

  • "Today’s conviction is a step towards justice for the 11 Jewish worshippers killed by a white supremacist gunman in 2018. May the memories of those taken from us be forever a blessing. And 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.” — U.S. Rep Summer Lee
  • "In order to achieve a full measure of justice for the 11 worshippers who lost their lives and six more people injured, we must continue working to root out the antisemitism that plagues our Nation and our world to this day. Antisemitic incidents in the United States reached a new high in 2022, four years after this attack. We owe it to those who lost their lives, the members of these congregations, and the Jewish community in Pittsburgh and beyond to ensure this never happens again." — U.S. Sen. Bob Casey
  • “Today, a jury found the shooter guilty of all charges. This is a step towards justice for such a hateful, disgusting and antisemitic attack. We all must continue to stand in solidarity with Pennsylvania’s Jewish community against the evil of antisemitism.” — U.S. Sen. John Fetterman
  • "The guilty verdict comes as no surprise and is the first step in delivering Justice to the victims, their families and the entire Pittsburgh community. As the Sabbath approaches, let all of us reflect on the shared humanity of all people of every creed and begin the process of healing." — Allegheny County Republican Committee Chair Sam DeMarco
  • "The [Simon Wiesenthal Center] expresses gratitude to the judicial system, and to the jury that elected to convict on all counts. This is the deadliest attack against the Jewish community in American history, and Bowers should face the death penalty, as this is the ultimate penalty for the ultimate crime. We also want to recognize the grieving families of the 11 victims. The support their neighbors and the Jewish community has shown them should be a model for all Americans.” — Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of global social action at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization.
  • In the seventh chapter of the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, Moses delivers the powerful message: ‘The Lord has set His heart on you because the Lord loved you.’ Those words were spoken to the beloved Jewish people. At this delicate time for the Pittsburgh Jewish community and beyond, we all need to embrace not only God’s words but especially at this time set our hearts on our Jewish sisters and brothers, as God does." — Bishop David Zubik of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh

Chris Potter of WESA contributed to this report.

Updated: June 16, 2023 at 4:09 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include additional comments.