Laura Ashley Powell
On Saturday, Oct. 27, a shooter opened fire in a Jewish Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and killed 11 people, including Holocaust survivors. The shooting occurred in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill neighborhood, a prominent Jewish neighborhood.
The attack, carried out by Robert Bowers, is now one of the most deadly religious hate crimes in U.S. history.
The Tree of Life Synagogue is home to three small congregations: Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash. The New Light congregation meets in the bottom floor of the building, and has about 20 congregants on a typical Saturday service. One of those congregants, Barry Werber, gave his harrowing story to the New York Times.
The New Light congregation had just begun their service when they heard a loud noise. When Werber went to investigate, he found the body of a fellow worshipper behind the door. Werber and the others immediately realized what was happening, and ran into a pitch-black storage room.
Around the same time, the service in the Tree of Life Congregation was taking place. One man, Joseph Charney, was standing next to a woman who was reading to the congregation when they also heard the loud noise, thinking it was furniture falling. Charney saw Bowers walk into the room with a large gun and shoot four people. He and the woman next to him were able to escape with their lives.
“I saw a big gun,” said Charney. “I only looked at him for a couple of seconds, and I put two and two together.” He and the woman were able to find a small space to hide in. “Keep your mouth shut and don’t breathe. It was very difficult,” Charney added.
At about 10 a.m., police arrived and Bowers immediately began shooting at them, resulting in a fire fight. When there was a break in the gunfire, one of the New Light congregants hiding in the dark closet, Mel Wax, decided to open the door to the closet to see what was going on.
“Mel Wax, blessed memory, couldn’t hear,” Werber said. “He had hearing aids, but you had to shout to make him hear anything. And I wasn’t about to do any shouting.”
When Wax opened the door, three shots were fired, and he collapsed on the ground. Bowers walked into the closet, stepping over Wax’s body. But it was so dark that he was unable to see the three remaining people in the closet, and he walked away.
“I was just hoping he didn’t have a flashlight, or he just didn’t spray the back of the room for the hell of it,” said Weberd.
At 10:55 a.m., police found Bowers hiding in the third floor of the Synagogue. Officers reported some back and forth conversation with Bowers, where they ordered him to come out. Bowers continued shooting, wounding three officers. At 11:08 a.m., Bowers finally crawled out.
“Suspect’s talking about, uh, all these Jews need to die,” said an officer on the scene. “The suspect keeps telling about killing Jews, he doesn’t want any of them to live.”
Bowers was taken to the hospital for his gunshot wounds, where he was kept under guard. The following Monday he appeared before a federal judge where he was charged with 29 federal crimes as well as several state crimes. One federal crime he was charged with is “obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs,” which is a hate crime that can receive the death penalty.
Before this attack, Bowers had no criminal history.
Werber, after giving his account of the attack, admitted that he struggled with the thought of returning to the synagogue he’s attended for almost 20 years.
“It’s our home,” said Werber. “But to be very honest, I’m going to have trouble walking into our sanctuary. It’s not a sanctuary anymore. Literally, it’s not a sanctuary anymore.”