By Megan Guza
David and Cecil Rosenthal. Rose Mallinger. Joyce Fienberg. Bernice and Sylvan Simon. Melvin Wax. Irving Younger. Jerry Rabinowitz. Daniel Stein. Richard Gottfried.
The Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill remains empty, an unintended memorial to these 11 congregants from three congregations — Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha, New Light and Dor Hadash — killed by gunfire during Shabbat services on Oct. 27.
A year after the country’s deadliest attack on people of the Jewish faith, most have realized that healing is a perpetual journey. It’s ongoing, they say, and it’s every day.
Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers was inside, and he sees the carnage again each time news of another shooting moves across the television. Some days, he can’t drive past the Wilkins Avenue synagogue.
“I relive what happened to me all over again. It’s as though it’s ‘Groundhog Day’ the movie, that Oct. 27 gets replayed all over again,” Myers said of the attack that left seven members of his congregation dead.
“It’s painful. You don’t want to relive it,” he continues. “That’s just the way the brain works. You begin thinking about the horror, the agony, the pain, the suffering. You wish that they weren’t part of this club now.”
They are, and so is he, and so is Pittsburgh and the region beyond, like more and more communities. Attacks like this have ripple effects that go far beyond the building, the block, the dead.
Myers called first.
Taking his cellphone into Shabbat services was new, a suggestion from active-shooter training offered by the Jewish Federation months earlier. Whatever panic was in his voice becomes clinical when relayed by a police dispatcher over the radio to Zone 4 police officers at 9:55 a.m.
“5898 Wilkins Ave., the complainant says they have an active shooter in the building. A second caller says they are being attacked. They have shotguns.”
Seconds later, an update: Multiple gunshots from the lobby. Paging on-duty SWAT. Through radio calls, the magnitude of what was unfolding became clear.
“Hold a perimeter. We’re under fire. We’re under fire,” Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Jason Lando called into his radio, steady but urgent, at about 9:59 a.m. “He has an automatic weapon. He has an automatic weapon. He’s firing at us from the synagogue.”
Lando grew up in Squirrel Hill attending Tree of Life. His grandfather, in his 90s, attended Saturday services there without fail — usually driven by victim Joyce Fienberg. Lando took command of the incident, arriving as the gunman opened fire on two patrol officers, all the while believing his grandfather was inside and likely dead. He wasn’t, Lando would learn. His grandfather was sick that morning.
Zone 4 Officers Daniel Mead and Michael Smidga arrived first, just as the gunman — Robert Bowers — walked out of the synagogue. Bowers started shooting. Mead was shot in the hand, and Smidga was struck in the head by shrapnel before Bowers retreated back inside with his AR-15 and three handguns.
Myers says now that he can only hope his call helped.
“You like to think I was able to get in contact with 911 as quickly as possible,” he says. “You hope that that was of some benefit.”
Nearly a year later, he falters as he looks for words.
“It’s been a year that in some regards defies description, because there’s nothing that can prepare you for Oct. 27 and then everything that’s happened ever since,” he says. Sometimes, he says, there are no words.
“Particularly if people have never lived through an experience like that but, alas, there are many people more and more who are living through these experiences,” he says.
It’ll happen again, he says. He’s sure of it.
Rabbi Doris Dyen and her husband were walking to the synagogue’s front door as the shooting began. They heard what might have been construction work or firecrackers, and Dyen remarked to her husband that it could be gunshots.
Their fears were quickly confirmed. The glass front wall and door had bullet holes in it. Dyen’s husband, University of Pittsburgh professor Deane Root, reacted instantly. He had undergone active shooter training at the university.
“As we got right near the door, he said, ‘Yes, active shooter – we’ve got to get out of here,’ ” Dyen said.
They began directing other arriving congregants away from the building.
For Dyen and Root, fear was not a factor.
“Because there were so many different emotions … all of them were sort of canceling each other out,” she says. “I was thinking safety. I was thinking, ‘What can we do? What needs to happen next? Who needs to know?’ I was very much focused on what needed to happen.”
For weeks afterward, Dyen and Root felt the need to cover their glass front doors with sheets and blankets.
“We really didn’t feel safe,” she says, acknowledging there was no threat but rather they just felt vulnerable.
“We were afraid, and we didn’t know what we were really afraid of necessarily,” she says. “We just really needed to feel safe in our home.”
Seven blocks away – he thinks it’s seven blocks, he says, but he’s never really counted – Bill Peduto slept in that Saturday morning. The Pittsburgh mayor, who often keeps late hours, has rules for those rare days off. The first is to leave him alone. The second is for his chief of staff, Dan Gilman, to call twice if it’s important.
His voice is steady and even, as though recounting a scene from a movie.
“I picked up the phone and Dan was on the other line. He said, ‘There’s an active shooter at Tree of Life. Officers are involved – multiple casualties,’ ” Peduto said. “It just all hit me at one time.”
He hung up. He said a prayer. He called back. He asked Gilman to come get him.
“He said, ‘I’m already on the way.’ ”
Looking back, Peduto recalls the timeline of the day in sections of memory: The rain, the bits of information coming from Public Safety officials, families gathered and waiting for news.
He’s unsure whether he stood at the scene for minutes or hours.
It was likely hours, said Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, who lives steps from the synagogue.
He’d been on the third floor of his Wilkins Avenue home when the first gunshots went off. He thought a picture frame fell from the wall. Then his wife screamed.
Cohen went to his driveway, where he’d stay for most of the day. An EMS supervisor had stationed himself there, and Cohen offered his help.
“I said, ‘Listen, I’m a surgeon, if I can be of help, let’s go,’ ” he recalled. He heard a volley of gunfire, saw the SWAT team running down the street. The supervisor told him to stick close.
“He said, ‘If I can get you in there, I will.’ ”
Months later, Cohen, the president of Allegheny General Hospital, says he didn’t think of the danger.
“You don’t think about those things,” he says. “The first thing you think about is, ‘What can I do to help?’ ”
He remembers Peduto, standing across the street, for hours. It rained off and on all day.
“He would not leave,” Cohen recalls. “It was almost a vigil he held.”
The Tree of Life shooter, wounded in a gun battle with police, ended up at AGH with a number of Jewish nurses and doctors working to save his life.
Cohen remembers the faces of the SWAT officers as they walked from the synagogue that day.
“You could tell this was really bad,” he says. “You just looked at their faces. They were gray. They didn’t want to talk to anyone. They got in their trucks and left. They looked ashen.”
That’s why Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich chose to walk through the scene inside. He said he needed to know what his officers and paramedics went through.
He’d taken a rare weekend away from the city. As the alerts and messages began to roll in, becoming more and more urgent, he thought maybe he’d missed something.
“You look at the text message, and you hope that maybe you missed an exercise that was scheduled for that day,” he said. “Unfortunately, a phone call … indicated it wasn’t an exercise. Each message was getting worse.”
He called the two-hour drive from a resort in Maryland the longest of his life.
In an emotional statement to the media three hours after the shooting began, he called it the worst scene he’d ever been on.
“I’ve been through crime scenes throughout the United States, but it’s especially hard when it’s your hometown,” he says. “Being born and raised in Pittsburgh and knowing what the officers, the first responders went through, knowing people that have loved ones in that synagogue, it’s very difficult.”
Police Chief Scott Schubert, another Pittsburgh native who has spent nearly his entire career with the city police, said it can be difficult to separate the professional response from the personal emotions. He said belief and faith help.
“In who you are and in what you do, what you stand for, what your organization stands for – knowing that you have to do what you’re trained to do,” he said. “For most people, they’re not thinking about any of that at the time; they’re reacting.”
He called his officers’ handling of the situation incredible.
“Watching them in action, watching them risk their lives to help people they don’t know, not once did anyone flinch,” he said. “They did what they had to do to end the situation, and I’ll forever be grateful for what all of them did to help save lives.”
Even before SWAT officers stormed the building, they were taking on gunfire. Mead and Smidga — the first two patrolmen on the scene — were wounded. Officers took cover behind a patrol car as the gunman sprayed bullets toward the street.
“Use that vehicle as your shield and get the hell out of there,” Lando demanded over the radio at about 10:10 a.m. He pointed out that Bowers’ AR-15 gunfire would go straight through the car.
At 10:25 a.m., the first 10-man SWAT team went through the front door. Methodically clearing each room — checking for living victims, searching for suspects. The carnage comes in breathless radio transmissions.
“Four down. We got four DOA, checking on one more.”
“I got one alive.”
“Additional four victims. Total of eight down, one rescued.”
“Three additional victims in the basement, two rescued.”
Among those in the basement was New Light Congregation’s Rabbi Jonathan Perlman. When the first shots rang out, he’d gotten a group into a storage room. With him was New Light congregant Melvin Wax.
Deaf in both ears, Wax opened the services each week, still keeping his tune as he led the congregation.
He didn’t hear the gunfire, Perlman said.
“I think he was confused; I don’t know,” Perlman says now, his voice still shaky at the memory. “He kept thinking that whatever was going on that we were bothered by somehow had stopped, and he left the storage room.”
He pauses, takes a shaky breath, and plows forward.
“And he was shot. Twice. And I beat myself up about this because I feel that I could have wrestled him to the ground, I could have shouted to him. … I could have grabbed his arm,” he says.
He often runs through scenarios in his head: Could he have done more? Could he have saved people?
“It’s part of the trauma,” he says. “It’s part of being human to carry those kinds of things with you.
“I will never forget Mel, and I ask his forgiveness. I wish that he could be here to celebrate the New Year with me,” he says through tears, referring to Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year that began on Sept. 29 this year.
New Light president Stephen Cohen was in Washington, D.C., for his granddaughter’s second birthday. At 9:50 a.m., his daughter got an alert on her phone.
“She said, ‘Dad, I think there’s something going on in Pittsburgh,’ ” he said. “I said, ‘Nah, not Pittsburgh. Not Squirrel Hill.’ ”
By 9:55 a.m., he was in the car. He said he made the four-hour drive in just over three.
The past year, he says, has been spent making sure everyone who needs to be taken care of has been taken care of, including his congregants.
“They may not have been in the building, but these were our friends; these were our family. To me, there’s no distinction,” he said. “Rich Gottfried, Dan Stein, Mel Wax, they were the absolute heart of our congregation.”
He says healing is not linear, and the ups and downs come and go. The closer the one-year mark comes, he says, the more difficult emotions become.
“It’s not that we’re reliving the event; it’s the trauma of the event,” he says. “It’s the grief.”
Bowers opened fire on SWAT officers from the third floor of the synagogue. The gun battle played out on police radio. Anthony Burke was shot in the arm, and Tim Matson was shot more than a half-dozen times. He would remain in the hospital for more than a month.
The gunman, wounded in one of the exchanges, surrendered. He told officers his name, his date of birth, the color of his car — and why he was there.
“He’s telling about ‘all these Jews need to die,’ ” an officer said over the radio.
As officers searched the building, Andrea Wedner made herself known. She was on the chapel floor, wounded, shot in the hand, when a SWAT officer walked through. Her 97-year-old mother, Rose Mallinger, was next to her, dead.
“I moved. I tried to get up, and he said to stay down,” Wedner said. He came back with a SWAT medic, who told her to come with him.
“So I got up, and I walked out, said goodbye to my mother and walked out,” Wedner said.
Looking back, she calls the past year both awful and wonderful.
“Awful because of what happened, but wonderful because there’s a lot of good that’s come out of it,” she said.
The community has been vital to her recovery — both physically and emotionally.
“I have a lot to live for, and I’m going to do it,” she says.
It was late afternoon in Tel Aviv, where Anthony Fienberg and his family were vacationing. They’d just gotten back to the hotel from an outing when they heard about the shooting.
“My eldest daughter … came flying through the door and said to me, ‘Did Bubbe go to shul today?’ ” he said. “That’s about when my stomach dropped out. I asked why.”
Fienberg said his mother, Joyce, attended Shabbat services without fail. They called neighbors at her Oakland complex to ask if her car was in its spot. It wasn’t.
Fienberg called his brother in Washington, D.C., and had him begin the drive to Pittsburgh. As information about survivors trickled in, he and his family connected the dots.
“We counted nine groups of families, two of whom were missing two. We knew there were 11 victims and,” he says, pausing. “We knew.”
The grief, he says nearly a year later, is immeasurable.
“It’s not possible. You see it on me,” he says, gesturing toward his beard.
In Judaism, men often do not shave for the first 30 days of mourning, known as shloshim. Fienberg says he shaved after those 30 days but then decided to allow his beard to grow until the one-year mark.
He says that his way of dealing with the grief has been to separate the circumstances from his mother’s death.
“The actual ‘how’ is almost irrelevant for how you deal with both the grief and the practicalities around it,” he says. “Therefore it could have been another non-natural way of passing.”
“It’s surreal. We’re talking about the United States, talking about Pittsburgh, and we’re talking about Tree of Life in particular,” he continues. “How the probability of that … happening, just, for me, seems absolutely surreal.”
The surrealism of it comes up often.
Michele Rosenthal’s brothers, both with cognitive challenges, were killed that day.
She says experts have told her there’s a business period where you take care of what needs to be taken care of. That’s what she was best at, she says.
“But then, when things start to hit you,” she trails off. “I wake up, or I’ll be driving, and I’ll just be like, ‘What happened? How did this happen in my life?’ ”
Cecil was the greeter at each service, and he was there in the lobby that morning.
“He would just tell people that they were beautiful,” Rosenthal said. “He would welcome them to the synagogue. With women, he would say, ‘You look beautiful.’ With men, he would joke around with them, maybe say, ‘Does your wife know you’re here?’ or ‘You’re fired.’
“He just always paid compliments,” she says. “I think of his warm smile.”
David was more reserved, not a fan of the limelight like his older brother. He loved firetrucks and was a fixture at his neighborhood fire station. The firefighters there took him in, letting him be part of the crew. They’d joke with him, and sometimes he’d help wash the truck.
A year ago, stories about mass shootings were a growing part of television news, Rosenthal says.
But none of the nation’s mass shootings targeted Judaism on this scale, Rabbi Myers says.
“There is no rabbi I could have called in the United States to find out, ‘What did you do?’ because this has never happened at a synagogue, ever,” he says. “There’s no place I could go, there’s no one’s words I could read.”
His mood can fluctuate, he says, and there are days when his mood starts out as a 10 but something – a piece of news, a flash of memory – can send it straight down at a 1.
“I think the most important thing I’ve come to learn is I’ll never be healed, nor will we be ‘healed’ in that past tense – it will be ‘healing,’ ” Myers says. “It will always be a state we will always be going through.”