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Synagogue shooting victims express rage, pity, sadness, contempt during sentencing

A man wearing a yamaka with his back turned walks away.
Rebecca Droke
Stephen Weiss, who gave a victim impact statement, leaves the Joseph F. Weis Jr. United States Courthouse after Robert Bowers was formally sentenced to death in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Aug 3, 2023. Bowers who killed 11 congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue was formally sentenced to death Thursday, one day after a jury determined that capital punishment was appropriate for the perpetrator of the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.

The world is not the same.

There was Oct. 26, 2018, and then there was Oct. 28, 2018, Martin Gaynor said in court Thursday. Eleven Jewish worshipers died in between. Many others, including Gaynor, barely survived — he hid in a closet while his fellow worshiper, Melvin Wax, was gunned down at his feet.

What happened between those two days shook the lives of dozens off their hinges and threw the entire Jewish community in Pittsburgh — and across the country — into turmoil, according to the 23 survivors, family and friends of victims who spoke Thursday at the sentencing hearing for Robert Bowers in U.S. District Court. A jury recommended that Bowers receive the death penalty Wednesday.

Gaynor, a longtime science professor at CMU, said he had to retire early because he couldn’t focus like he used to. He wondered if this new era — life after Oct. 27, 2018 — was like the time before the Holocaust; maybe he should flee with his family to Canada, he thought, or perhaps Israel. Sometimes at night, he said, his murdered friend Jerry Rabinowitz comes to him in a dream — still smiling — but the joy of seeing him is overwhelmed by sadness.

“Es Past Nischt,” Gaynor said in Yiddish. “It’s just not right.”

Mark Simon, the oldest son of Bernice and Sylvan Simon, couldn’t keep the anger from his voice as he said “that defendant” had left his life “misshapen.” Simon said his mind is now constantly divided between that of a man who is grieving and full of anger and a person who tries to carry on for his family as his parents would have wanted. He has held onto clothing with pieces of his father’s flesh in it still, a bloody prayer shawl and a bloody yarmulke.

“This artifact haunts me now and always will, but I cannot part with it,” he said over and over, after he listed each of the items.

Debi Salvin, the twin sister of the murdered Richard Gottfried, said she lost more than her sibling.

“I have known antisemitism in some form or another my entire life, but I never worried about my safety,” she said. “I do now.”

Stephen Weiss survived the shooting, but he now attends synagogue only once per week because his wife worries about him. They moved to a small town away from Pittsburgh and now, he said, he always carries a gun with him to synagogue.

“I will not allow myself to be vulnerable to anybody who enters with antisemitic animus,” he said.

Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said synagogues across the country have had to increase their security. And yet the amount of antisemitic incidents only continues to rise. During the trial, the FBI warned Myers that there was a known antisemite who was making posts online about him.

At least 10 adult members are needed in order to hold a full service, Myers said, and 70% of his most committed members were killed. Many others say they are too afraid to attend now.

“My beloved synagogue is the 12th victim,” he said. “... I do not think we will ever be able to resume a daily worship by ourselves.”

Alan Mallinger, whose mother, Rose Mallinger, was murdered, told Bowers in defiance that the synagogue is being rebuilt and that he and his family would continue to celebrate weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs of their children and grandchildren for generations to come.

“We have suffered for thousands of years before you came along, and we will continue to do so after you have been killed,” he said. “We will continue to grow our culture no matter who tries to stop us.”

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The Biblical struggle with capital punishment

Anthony Fienberg said that, in the 18 months after his mother Joyce Fienberg was murdered, he became “a Torah-observant Jew” and, in fact, celebrated the creation of a new Torah this past weekend in Squirrel Hill. Fienberg quoted several passages of the Torah on Thursday that he said showed that Bowers’ actions deserve the death penalty.

The trauma of his mother’s murder has trickled down through the generations, he said — his daughter, who lives with him in Paris, recently wrote in a school essay: “I was walking on the streets of Paris, thinking about death.”

No one spoke on behalf of Bowers in court today, although a couple of people who did speak affirmed the sanctity of life, despite the horrors they had undergone.

Dan Leger, who still suffers from the physical wounds he received that day, was one of the only speakers to thank Bowers’ lawyers “for valuing the sanctity of life even if their client doesn't.”

Leger read a quote from the book of Ezekiel about the possibility for redemption but said he isn't starry-eyed about the possibility. “I do not know if that’s possible in this case,” he said.

Rabbi Doris Dyen, who worships at the Dor Hadash congregation with Leger, came to a different conclusion.

“As a rabbi and a chaplain, I stand for life,” she said. “But this shooter has challenged my ability to maintain that view. In my opinion, he has forfeited the privilege of living because his actions have shown he does not respect life.”

Jared Younger quoted Christian scripture as he forgave Bowers for murdering his father, Irving Younger. “I love everybody in this courtroom, and that man Robert Bowers is no exception ...” and Younger broke into tears as he said Bowers’ name.

Peg Durachko, the wife of Richard Gottfried, said Bowers took away “the most important person in my life, my whole family. Your hateful act took my soulmate away from me, left me totally alone,” she said.

Durachko, a Catholic, told Bowers to give himself over to God.

“He is the just judge who determines where you spend eternity,” she said. “You won't have a team of lawyers. You will have to stand for yourself and He looks into your heart. I suggest that you prepare now because you have work to do.”

Look up

Several family members said they were frustrated that Bowers appeared to be gaining pleasure from hearing about his crimes on the news in prison.

Carol Black, whose brother Richard Gottfried was murdered, said the justice system needed to do more to restrict the activities of Bowers, who, according to testimony during the trial, seemed content despite his isolation. No TV or tablet or Internet, she said.

“There isn’t a punishment severe enough for him,” she said. “His current placement is too comfortable.”

Bowers told psychological experts who testified during the trial that he thought of himself as a soldier, and he hoped he would receive medals and a parade for the courage he showed in trying to preserve the white race. Robert Kennedy, the brother-in-law of David and Cecil Rosenthal, held up the Bronze Star medal he received for serving in Vietnam.

“You didn't engage in battle with armed professionals trained in combat and could shoot back,” Kennedy said. It was cowardice, he said, that led him to kill the Rosenthals, who had intellectual disabilities, and nine other largely elderly victims: “I am unaware of any medals that honor the greatest coward.”

Michael Hirt, another brother-in-law of the Rosenthals, criticized Bowers for claiming courage but not “being man enough” to look up at victims during the trial.

“I wonder now whether you are man enough to look up at us,” Hirt said, and paused. But Bowers continued to stare down at the papers on his desk. “I didn’t think so.”

Hirt criticized Bowers’ defense lawyers for patting him on the back and treating him like a child when he continued to espouse hatred.

“Doing your job is one thing, he said. “But your displays of affection toward the defendant right in front of us were just plain wrong,” he said.

Audrey Glickman, who survived the shooting by hiding under laundry bags with her partner Joe Charny, who was 90 at the time of the attack, blamed defense attorneys for delaying the trial so long that Charny didn’t survive to testify against Bowers.

“Can we really say that living through this trauma didn't contribute to such ends?” she said.

Deane Root, a professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh and a survivor of the attack, said he cannot attend symphonies anymore because the percussion instruments force him to relive his trauma. Root said he has been inspired by the Jewish story of Amalek, who murdered vulnerable Jews as they fled from Egypt during their exodus.

The tradition, he said, is to “blot out his memory.” So every time he sees Bowers’ name or picture, he puts his thumb over it.

Echoing a phrase that evokes the lessons of the Holocaust, as well as the futility of efforts to stop gun violence, Leger said that their efforts were not enough on their own.

“We spent the past many weeks on a story that needed to be told in the hopes that it won't happen again,” Leger said. “And yet, we know that such unspeakable things will probably continue.”

Michelle Rosenthal said her family would make a donation every year on Oct. 27 to a group that supports immigration, such as the Jewish-American refugee resettlement nonprofit HIAS, which Bowers said motivated his attack. “And we will mail [Bowers] the receipt to his new home, wherever it ends up being.”

Just before U.S. District Judge Robert Colville sentenced Bowers to death, he declined to address Bowers directly:

“I am convinced there is nothing I could say to him that would be meaningful to him in this moment.”

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.