Nearly five years after losing their loved ones in a brutal antisemitic attack, survivors of the 2018 synagogue shooting who gathered at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill today say they can finally begin to move on now that the trial is concluded and the killer has been sentenced.
“This moment is a step along the healing process,” Deane Root, a survivor, said today during a press conference. “It doesn’t bring complete comfort, but my hope is it will bring a measure of peace — peace of mind, peace of the heart, and peace of the soul.”
After finding him guilty in June of slaying 11 worshippers inside the Tree of Life Synagogue in October 2018, today a jury of 12 concluded gunman Robert Bowers deserved the death penalty for his actions. The acceptance of multiple aggregating factors — including evident planning and premeditation as well as the killer’s expressed antisemitism and lack of remorse — tipped the balance for the jurors in favor of a death sentence, according to reporting from TribLive.
Eleven people were killed and several others were injured inside the synagogue, where two additional congregations — Dor Hadash and New Light Congregation — were also holding services during the morning of Oct. 27, 2018.
Shortly after the verdict was delivered late in the morning today, a small crowd of survivors and victims’ relatives lined up behind a podium at the Jewish Community Center to share their reflections. They spoke of the pain of lingering trauma, the bond that’s held their community together during the past five years, and finally, the prospect of healing.
“Even though nothing can bring my father back, justice has been served, and I can breathe a sigh of relief,” said Leigh Stein, whose father, Daniel Stein, was killed in the shooting.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Congregation opened the conference with a Hebrew prayer, which he then translated into English:
“Praise to you our God, who is king of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.”
Myers noted that today marks a “day of love” in the Jewish calendar, which he deemed “propitious” given the sentencing verdict.
“Today we received an immense embrace from the halls of justice around all of us to say that our government does not condone antisemitism,” he said.
Most of the victims’ family members have reportedly voiced support for a death sentence, however, many were quick to point out its limits as a source of comfort.
“Although we will never attain full closure from the loss of our beloved Rose Mallinger, we now feel a measure of justice has been served,” said the victim’s daughter Andrea Wedner, who witnessed the shooting.
Outside Pittsburgh, some Jewish leaders have condemned the sentence.
"This guy is already a dead man walking,” Abe Bonowitz, cofounder of Death Penalty Action, said today in a statement. “Now each person impacted by this horrific hate crime is quite likely to have the rug pulled out from under them yet again as the appeals process drags on for years … Instead of fading to obscurity, this racist anti-Semitic terrorist gains notoriety as a martyr for others who think like he does."
Some anti-death penalty advocates among Pittsburgh’s Jewish community declined to comment immediately in deference to the grieving victims when reached by Pittsburgh City Paper.
The death penalty remains rare in Pennsylvania, where an execution has not been carried out since 1999, and a governor-issued moratorium on capital punishment has been in place since 2015. The Pittsburgh synagogue case was, however, brought by federal prosecutors, creating a pathway for Bowers’ execution.
For survivors like Wedner, committing the killer to the gravest consequences of the law is an important statement against anti-Jewish hate.
“Turning a sentence of death is not a decision that comes easy, but we must hold accountable those who commit terrible acts of antisemitism, hate, and violence,” she said.