By Ben Sales
(JTA) — On Saturday October 27, 2018, a gunman entered the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh and killed 11 people, wounding six others. It was the worst recorded anti-Semitic act in American history.
Before the shooting
Robert Bowers, the alleged gunman, is a truck driver from the Pittsburgh area who lives in a one-bedroom apartment about a half-hour’s drive from Squirrel Hill, the diverse neighborhood that has long been the center of the city’s Jewish community. Acquaintances described him to The Times as a loner, “pretty much a ghost” with few people close to him. His next-door neighbor would see him occasionally but had forgotten his name.
But that quiet exterior obscured Bowers’ hateful beliefs, which he expressed on Gab, a social media platform for the far right. Bowers would post bigoted and anti-Semitic comments. Shortly before the shooting he vilified HIAS, the Jewish refugee aid group, for its work resettling Middle Eastern refugees in the United States.
“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” he wrote on his website. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Saturday, 9:45 a.m.
Services begin at Tree of Life Congregation, a synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood that houses three congregations: Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, a merger of two Conservative synagogues; New Light, a small Conservative congregation that draws about 20 worshippers weekly; and Dor Hadash, a Reconstructionist congregation.
At the entrance, Cecil and David Rosenthal, brothers with intellectual disabilities who are active members of Tree of Life, are handing out prayer books. There is a table with challah, wine and whiskey for a bris, or circumcision ceremony, being held that morning. In the kitchen, two other community members, Daniel Stein and Richard Gottfried, were preparing lox, cream cheese, bagels and eggs.
The gunman enters and begins shooting. His first victims, according to a Times account, are the Rosenthal brothers, ages 54 and 59. He then enters New Light, where Melvin Wax, 88, is leading services.
The first call is placed to 911, apparently by Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life. Werber, of New Light, also calls 911 around this time.
Myers told “Today” that when he first heard the gunshots, he assumed it was an elderly person who had grabbed onto a coat rack for balance and knocked it over. Seconds afterward, after a second round of volleys, Myers realizes he’s hearing gunfire.
Myers takes the four congregants at the front of the sanctuary out of an entrance at the front of the room that leads to a labyrinth of hallways and an exit from the building. He holes up in a balcony from which he can hear the gunshots. He is unable to access the eight remaining congregants sitting in the back of the sanctuary.
After hearing the gunshots, several congregants of New Light — Barry Werber, Wax, Rabbi Jonathan Pearlman and Carol Black — hide in a storage closet. They are unable to find the light switch, leaving the room pitch black.
The shooting subsides, and Wax opens the door. He is shot and killed.
The gunman then enters the storage closet and begins to fumble around in the dark, with the three other congregants still inside. Unable to see them, he leaves.
The gunman goes upstairs to the Tree of Life congregation, where a number of congregants remain, and begins shooting. Seven are killed, one injured.
“I couldn’t save those eight people,” Myers told Today. “I went up into the choir loft and heard him execute my congregants.”
Stein, 71, and Gottfried, 66, are among the murdered. The remaining victims are Bernice Simon, 84, and Sylvan Simon, 86, a husband and wife, along with Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; Joyce Fienberg, 75; Rose Mallinger, 97; and Irving Younger, 69.
Two others, including Daniel Leger, 70, are injured.
The first police officers arrive on the scene and begin to engage the gunman. He returns fire from the front of the building.
“We’re under fire, we’re under fire,” an officer reports. “He’s got an automatic weapon, he’s firing at us from the synagogue.”
The shooter then retreats into the building and barricades himself on the third floor.
The SWAT team arrives. Police have set up a perimeter around the building.
SWAT officers begin to escort congregants out of the building. The SWAT team moves through the building.
The SWAT team encounters the gunman on the third floor and begins exchanging fire with him. One officer is critically wounded.
The gunman begins talking to the officers. He identifies himself as Robert Bowers, age 46, from Baldwin Borough.
Bowers, who is wounded, crawls toward the officers and surrenders. Five minutes later he is taken into custody. According to an officer, as Bowers crawls toward the officers, he is “talking about [how] all these Jews need to die.”