Rabbi recounts fear and heroism in deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Rabbi Jonathan Perlman took the witness stand Thursday wearing the yarmulke he wore the day a gunman burst into his Pittsburgh synagogue during Sabbath services and began shooting anyone that he could find.

The skullcap that Jews wear as a reminder of God’s presence fell in the October 27, 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue, which was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history. Authorities kept it as evidence for years, and Perlman, the rabbi of one of the three congregations that shared the building, only recently got it back.

As he recalled the terrifying events of that day, Perlman, 59, also took on his role as a teacher to explain the Hebrew letters sewn onto his yarmulke, which read, “There is nothing outside from him”.

“He is a God who is present in all aspects of creation,” he told the federal jury.

It was one of many moments in the trial for a brutal act of violence against Jews in which survivors took the opportunity to educate the jury about their faith – a show of defiance to the man who tried to destroy them and who expressed little emotion while seated at the defense table.

Robert Bowers, a 50-year-old truck driver from the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin, faces 63 federal charges related to the murder of 11 congregants, who came from the three congregations that used the synagogue — New Light, Dor Hadash and the Tree of the life. If convicted of certain charges, including 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death, Bowers could face the death penalty.

Prosecutors said Bowers expressed his hatred of Jews online and at the synagogue on the day of the attack. One of his attorneys acknowledged in opening statements Tuesday that Bowers carried out the attack, but tried to question the applicability of the hate crime charges. The legal maneuvers of his defense team focused not so much on preventing his conviction as on preventing his execution.

Perlman, the rabbi of the New Light Congregation, said he arrived at the congregation’s basement shrine in the synagogue shortly before worship began on Oct. 27. Member Melvin Wax led an opening prayer in which “we talk about how grateful we are to start a day,” he recalled.

Perlman then heard what he immediately recognized as gunshots coming from elsewhere in the building. “I said, ‘We’re in danger, follow me. “”He guided Wax and two other devotees, Carol Black and Barry Werber, to a nearby storage room in the labyrinthine building.

He said Wax, 87 and hard of hearing, wanted to see what happened. “I said, ‘Please don’t. Stay inside.’ He didn’t listen to me.”

As Black and Werber testified on Wednesday, Wax opened the door to look outside and was shot and killed.

Perlman had left the area and was “trying to find my own hiding place” when he saw Tree of Life member Stephen Weiss. He called Weiss “a man of extraordinary courage” for descending into the New Light area, even while the attack was in progress on the ground floor, to ensure that New Light members at the basement knew what was going on.

Perlman eventually found a side exit, scaled a fence into a nearby yard, and found the police, informing them of where the others were hiding. With the attack still going on, “they told me to get the hell out of here”, and he went home.

Weiss told jurors on Wednesday he was one of 12 worshipers that day at the start of the Tree of Life service, which was held in a separate chapel. He knew the count because, as the ritual head of the congregation, he ensured that there was the required minimum – one minyan – of 10 adult worshipers in the hall. After the devotees heard a loud noise, two of them went to see what had happened. Weiss went to the chapel door but remained in the room to tend the minyan.

He heard gunshots, saw shell casings slam on the floor, and returned to the room, where Rabbi Jeffrey Myers was evacuating those who could move quickly and urging the most fragile members to descend.

Weiss escaped through a door at the front of the chapel and, after going downstairs to warn the members of New Light, found his own way outside.

He noted that although the door to the synagogue was locked on weekdays, when office staff could let people in, it was routinely unlocked on the Sabbath.

“We are proud to have our doors open” to everyone, he said.

Asked by a prosecutor if his Tree of Life congregation has been able to gather a minyan so easily since the attack, Weiss said no.

“We don’t have the same turnout from members who were there very reliably,” he said. When asked why, he replied, “Because they were killed.”


Find more AP coverage of the synagogue shooting: https://apnews.com/hub/pittsburgh-synagogue-massacre


Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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