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'I feel like I can breathe again': Pittsburgh synagogue attack survivors begin to move forward

Ranisa Davidson, Carol Black, Deane Root, Jodi Kart and Sharyn Stein smile while holding a color pencil artwork reading "You are not alone" over multicolored patterns.
Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA
10.27 Healing Partnership program manager Ranisa Davidson (left) and synagogue shooting survivors Carol Black, Deane Root, Jodi Kart and Sharyn Stein hold an artwork they made during the trial.

From May through early August, Sharyn Stein followed the same schedule every day.

“I would get up and get into my car and go over to Rodef Shalom and get on the bus and go down to the court. That's what my life consisted of,” she said. “I would go home at night, totally exhausted [and] not eat dinner.”

Pittsburgh collectively waited in anticipation this summer for the jury’s verdict in the case against Robert Bowers, the man responsible for killing 11 Jewish worshippers and injuring six others in 2018. But Stein — whose husband Dan was killed in the attack — lived and breathed nothing but the legal proceedings for months.

“I didn’t think anything else about life in general,” she said.

Jodi Kart lost her father Melvin Wax in the attack. She also put her life on hold this summer.

“I made sure there were no doctor appointments on the calendar, no meetings scheduled, no vacations. I just left it open,” to be able to represent her father in court day after day, she said.

“It was a very surreal experience,” Kart said, adding that some days it felt “like I was watching a movie, but it was about my life.”

Carol Black, who survived the attack by hiding in a closet but lost her brother Richard Gottfried, said nothing about the trial resembled the way legal proceedings play out on television or the silver screen.

“[On] TV, things wrap up in an hour, probably 40 minutes,” she said. “This went on for months. It was real life,” she said.

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Survivors and families went through a uniquely painful summer. They heard new details about what happened during the attack and more about the antisemitic beliefs shared online by the gunman. Some survivors had to testify about what they experienced.

For Kart, just being in the same room with the man responsible for the events of that day was hard to stomach.

“Just being in that space with the defendant and trying to wrap my head around the fact that he was the man who took my father's life was really difficult to process day after day after day,” Kart said.

Deane Root, who was heading into Shabbat services before the attack began, said he knew the defense would have to make its case for why the gunman's life should be spared. But that didn’t make it easier to sit through.

“Days and days and days [were] devoted to what a wonderful human being this murderer was and how his family loved him,” Root said. “It was difficult.”

Bowers was found guilty on 63 federal counts in June, including 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death. The same jury sentenced him to death earlier this month. At the last hearing, survivors and the families of the victims were finally able to share how the shooting turned their lives upside down.

Before then, they were instructed to keep quiet to avoid saying anything that could sway the jury or impact the proceedings.

“We didn’t want to say anything that could in any way jeopardize the prosecution’s case,” said Black.

Survivors feared that if they said anything, it could help the defense request a mistrial, which would restart the clock on the judicial process.

“There was great pressure,” said Root. “During the … jury selection and all of the actual trial, it felt like I — and members of my family — were constrained.”

Now that the trial is over, many survivors and families of the victims are breathing a sigh of relief. It’s been nearly a month since the families’ last day in court. Black said the verdict that put the gunman away has allowed her to feel free for the first time in four-and-a-half years.

“It was like I had a 500-pound weight that was holding me down, and that weight has been lifted,” Black said.

Although at times the trial felt unbearable, Root said the families and survivors found strength in each other, something he’s still grateful for.

“We were a part of an amazing group of people,” Root said. “We were really bonding like every moment. It was a combination of some of the most horrendous experiences of our lives at the same time as this enormous love and support we were getting.”

Families rode to the courthouse together for support and shared blankets in the courtroom. A collaborative art project started by the 10.27 Healing Partnership helped survivors decompress — together they colored a sign that read, "You are not alone."

Now the families are beginning to think about the rest of their lives. For Black, getting back to a daily routine that doesn’t revolve around the attack hasn’t been easy.

“Even trying to go and figure out what to do with my day, because for a couple of months, there was a plan and there was no deviation from that plan,” Black said.

But she’s grateful to finally be able to move on.

“Just getting back to normal, regular life; it feels good. It's very freeing,” she said.

In her regular life, Stein said she's celebrating her grandson starting class at the Community Day School, where her daughter is also starting a job.

"My daughter and my grandson ... will continue my husband's legacy," Stein said, wiping away a tear. "I'm hoping my children will continue to honor him in the [Jewish] tradition."

Keeping up with traditions is one way Ranisa Davidson, program manager at the 10.27 Healing Partnership, is moving forward. She recently returned from a trip to Israel where her family celebrated the bar mitzvah of her son.

"To be able to do that after coming through this experience that was so full of hate was really extremely powerful for all of us," Davidson said.

Another part of getting back to regular life for the survivors who spoke to WESA includes putting their grief to work. Black, Kart, Stein and Root joined Michele Rosenthal (whose brothers Cecil and David were killed in the shooting) and Barry Werber (who survived the attack) to form Families Bridging Kindness, a support group for survivors of mass shootings.

“Sadly, there are mass shootings almost daily now,” Kart lamented.

Soon after the 2018 attack, survivors and their families began hearing from other communities where similar tragedies transpired. Some members of the group went to Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., to spend time with survivors of the 2015 shooting there.

Kart said support from other people who have been through this has been immeasurably important to her. And now she wants to give that to the survivors of the next inevitable shooting.

“I hope that we can be that to other communities,” she said. “Now that we have experienced our trial, I think going forward, maybe that's something that we would like to try to do.”

Families Bridging Kindness and the 10.27 Healing Partnership are planning to create a community guide for victim assistance to help victims prepare for a mass shooting trial.

Root said his group’s experience with a federal mass shooting trial affords them a unique perspective that many other survivors don’t have.

“Many of those trials have been at the state level rather than the federal level,” he said. “We have that unique perspective to share with others in the future.”

Even as the survivors and families of the victims begin to look toward the future, their grief remains with them. For Root, that pain isn’t going anywhere. But the burden is starting to feel a little lighter.

“That's what it felt like that last day after the trial,” he said. “We walked out of the courthouse for the last time into the sunshine. It was like, ‘Well, world, we're back. We've been through this. Now we're back.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.