Shortly before 10 a.m. on Oct. 27, Richard Bowers walked into the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh and opened fire.
Rabbi Marc Gruber, of Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth in Rockville Centre, said he found out about the attack at his Saturday morning service. During the memorial prayers, a congregant noted a shooting in Pittsburgh. “It was really peculiar,” said Gruber, who didn’t yet know what the person was referring to.
After the service, Gruber said, his wife, Renee, who grew up in Pittsburgh and has family that still live there, was watching the news and fielding texts and phone calls. Her mother’s cousin, Sylvan Simon, and his wife, Bernice, were killed at the synagogue.
Gruber noted that an aide of his wife’s parents heard the gunshots. “That’s how close they are,” he said. “I’ve prayed in that synagogue.” Renee and her family knew about half of those killed in the attack, he added.
Bowers, 46, according to multiple reports, had posted an anti-Jewish message on his Gab social media account that read: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” he said. “Screw your optics, I’m going in.” That was at 9:49 a.m.
Five minutes later a 911 call was made to the Allegheny County Emergency Operations Center about an active shooter. Police were dispatched. Shots were exchanged. Bullets from Bowers AR-15 assault rifle and possibly three handguns struck 17 people, killing 11 and injuring six, including four police officers. His words after being taken into custody according to police were, “All these Jews need to die.”
Bowers, who was also shot, was charged by federal officials with 29 criminal counts, including obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs — a hate crime — and using a firearm to commit murder. He also faces state charges, including 11 counts of criminal homicide, six counts of aggravated assault and 13 counts of ethnic intimidation.
Gruber said about 70 people attended a service on Sunday at Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth during which people shared their thoughts and feelings. “It was in a sense a group hug,” he said. “We ended holding hands and singing a song of peace. People need to have that sense of community, that sense that we’re in this together.”
Congregation B’nai Sholom-Beth David — at 100 Hempstead Ave. — will hold a vigil on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m.
The congregation’s leader, Rabbi Howard Diamond, said Jewish people have suffered from anti-Semitic acts for centuries. “As shocked as I was, and I was indeed shocked and upset, I’m not surprised,” he said about learning of the shooting.
Though synagogues and Jewish community centers can be fortified, he said, it is nearly impossible to stop people with the intent to hurt others. Still, he added, the community must stay vigilant.
The purpose of the vigil on Tuesday, Diamond said, is to provide “just comfort, [so they] know that there’s other people out there and in their community feeling the same pain that they feel.”
Immediately after news of the shooting broke, many took to social media, especially Twitter, to react to the mass shooting. It was the 294th such incident this year in the United States. A mass shooting is defined as four or more individuals being shot or killed in the same general time and location.
“Today’s tragedy in Pittsburgh gives me the inescapable feeling that we are sliding steadily backwards when it comes to tolerance and violence in our country,” State Sen. Todd Kaminsky tweeted last Saturday. “History isn’t supposed to unfold like this. We are so much better...and we must be.”
Anti-Semitism appeared to be a motive for the shooting, and Bowers targeted the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society for his ire. It is a nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees. The Anti-Defamation League has reported that anti-Semitic incidents in the United States has risen by 57 percent in 2017 from 1,267 in 2016 to 1,986. The largest increase since the ADL began tracking in 1979.
Only once since 1979 has the ADL recorded more incidents: 2,066 in 1994. Since then, the incidents had mostly declined. There were small increases in 2014 and 2015. Then, in 2016, the count began to rise.
“There’s hate speech and hate crimes in general,” Gruber said, “and we need to put our foot down and say we’re not going to tolerate this in our society.”