case closure

Jewish groups hail sentencing of Tree of Life gunman

Mostly sidestepping death penalty issue, organizations send condolences to families of victims, stress need to prevent future attacks

Jewish groups hailed the sentencing of Robert Bowers, the gunman behind the deadly 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, sending condolences to the families of the 11 people who were murdered in the attack and appreciation to the prosecution for pursuing the case.

“Our sympathy and prayers go to the families of the victims, survivors and first responders directly affected; to these congregations who lost loved members; and to all of the people traumatized by this crime,” the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh wrote in a statement. “We remember and honor the eleven victims: Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger.”

“This trial shows that our justice system can work by giving a voice to the voiceless and by ensuring that we, as a society, can bring the perpetrator of this horrendous attack to account,” the federation said.

After 10 hours of deliberation over two days, the Pittsburgh jury handed down a death sentence for Bowers, noting that he lacked remorse for his actions and specifically chose the synagogue, which housed Congregation Dor Hadash, New Light Congregation and Tree of Life Congregation, in order to “maximize the devastation, amplify the harm of his crimes, and instill fear within the local, national, and international Jewish communities,” the jurors wrote in their decision.

Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who was conducting Shabbat services the morning of the attack, noted that the jury reached its decision on Tu B’Av, a day of levity and love on the Hebrew calendar. “I don’t believe in coincidences,” Myers said, adding that the community “received an immense embrace from the halls of justice” that affirmed “we have the right to practice our Judaism and no one will ever take that right away from us.”

Local and national Jewish groups largely refrained from discussing the contentious issue of the death penalty in their responses to the sentence, sometimes consciously avoiding the topic. 

“Ultimately what is of most significance is not how the shooter will spend the end of his life, but the fact that the U.S. government pursued this case with vigor and demonstrated that such crimes will not be countenanced, excused, or minimized,” the American Jewish Committee wrote in a statement about the sentence.

The Jewish federation thanked the jury members for “their time and dedication in reaching this sentence.”

The family of Rose Mallinger and her daughter, Andrea Wedner, who was shot and injured in the attack, said in a statement that the death sentence is “not a decision that comes easy” but that society “must hold accountable those who wish to commit such terrible acts of antisemitism, hate, and violence.”

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, a survivor of the attack, wrote in an opinion piece for The Forward that he opposed the death penalty in this case.

“Despite the horrific nature of his crimes, I do not believe that doing so would bring either justice or peace,” Perlman said. “Revenge will not bring our slain loved ones back to life. And seeking it may even hurt ourselves and extend our sadness.”

Evan R. Bernstein, the national director and CEO of the Community Security Service, which helps Jewish communities create and implement security plans, said that he hoped the sentence “provides some solace to the families of the victims.”

He stressed the need to “continue taking steps to double down our efforts to work together on protecting ourselves and our Jewish institutions.”

HIAS, whose efforts on behalf of refugees were specifically cited by Bowers as a reason for his attack, said the organization would continue with its mission.

“Today’s sentencing marks the end of the judicial process, but this tragedy will forever be part of our story as an organization,” the group said. “HIAS will continue to work with resolve and conviction for a more just society; we remain in solidarity with all communities targeted by hateful and xenophobic acts.”

HIAS noted that one of the congregations from Tree of Life, Dor Hadash, was still involved in advocacy and support for refugees.

“We stand with the people of Pittsburgh and hope they can continue to heal from the loss and disruption in their community,” HIAS said. “We pray for a sense of closure, that the memories of those lost will forever be a blessing, and that the Jewish community of Pittsburgh will continue to thrive into the future.”

Amy Spitalnick, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, responded to the sentencing by calling for solidarity. “We can honor the 11 Jews killed in 2018 by recognizing this increasingly normalized, deadly antisemitic, xenophobic and racist extremism — and how it puts all of us at risk,” she said.

In its statement, the Pittsburgh Jewish Federation praised its community for remaining strong after the deadly shooting.

“In the wake of the horrors of the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history, our community neither retreated from participating in Jewish life nor suppressed our Jewishness,” it wrote. “Instead, our community embraced our Jewish values—strengthening Jewish life, supporting those in need, and building a safer, more inclusive world.”