The death toll has risen to 11 as a result of a mass shooting at The Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, a historic Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Six people were injured, including four police officers. There were no children among the deceased. The shooting occurred during a bris — a traditional Jewish baby naming ceremony. Authorities have arrested the suspect and described the shooting as a hate crime. The suspect walked in to the synagogue yelling “All Jews must die.”
That suspect is 46-year-old Robert Bowers, who surrendered to police at the scene of the shooting. According to FBI Special Agent Bob Jones, he had one assault rifle and three handguns on him at the time of the shooting. Bowers reportedly frequently posted anti-Semitic comments on social media. CNN reports that shortly before the shooting, Bowers posted to his alt-right social network site called Gab account that he “can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
On social media, Bowers claimed that Jews were helping transport members of the migrant caravans in Latin America. He shared a video that another Gab.com user posted, purportedly of HIAS, a Jewish refugee support group, on the US-Mexico border. In another post, Bowers described HIAS’ overall efforts as, “sugar-coated evil.”
Bowers has also recently posted a photo of a collection of three semi-automatic handguns he titled “my glock family,” as well as photos of bullet holes in person-sized targets at a firing range, touting the “amazing trigger” on a handgun he was offering for sale.
The Tree of Life Synagogue has a concrete facade punctuated by rows of swirling, modernistic stained-glass windows illustrating the story of creation, the acceptance of God’s law, the “life cycle” and “how human-beings should care for the earth and one another,” according to its website. Among its treasures is a “Holocaust Torah,” rescued from Czechoslovakia. Its sanctuary can hold up to 1,250 guests.
The synagogue had not gotten any threats, according to news reports, and maintenance employees had recently checked all of the emergency exits and doors to make sure they were cleared and working.
Michael Eisenberg, a past president of the synagogue, said at least three congregations – Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash – would be holding services in the building at the time.
“On a day like today, the door is open,” Eisenberg told a reporter for Pittsburgh’s CBS affiliate KDKA. “It’s a religious service. You could walk in and out. Only on the high holidays is there a police presence at the entrance.”
“I will emphasize at this time that there appears to be no active threat to the community. We believe the subject that is responsible for this has been taken into custody,” Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said.
HIAS (founded as Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) is a non-profit organization with Jewish roots that provides humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees.
HIAS issued a statement: “There are no words to express how devastated we are by the events in Pittsburgh this morning. This loss is our loss, and our thoughts are with Tree of Life Congregation, our local partner Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) of Pittsburgh, the city of Pittsburgh and all those affected by this senseless act of violence. As we try to process this horrifying tragedy, we pray that the American Jewish community and the country can find healing.”
American Jewish Reaction
Despite the incident falling on Shabbat, the American Jewish community was quick to react to the shooting, expressing condolences to the victims and outrage at an attack on a peaceful house of worship.
“The World Jewish Congress is shocked and horrified by the heinous act of terror that unfolded this morning at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families and all the people of Pittsburgh,” WJC President Ronald S. Lauder said.
“It is unfathomable that in the United States of America, Jews or anyone else should have to live in fear of being targeted simply because of who they are and where they choose to worship. This was an attack not just on the Jewish community, but on America as a whole. We must condemn this attack at the highest levels and do everything in our power to stop such atrocities from happening again.”
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in statement on Twitter, that he was also “devastated” that “Jews targeted on Shabbat morning at synagogue, a holy place of worship, is unconscionable. Our hearts break for the victims, their families, and the entire Jewish community.”
The American Holocaust Memorial Museum also condemned the shooting, saying that the incident “reminds all Americans of the dangers of unchecked hatred and anti-Semitism which must be confronted wherever they appear and calls on all Americans to actively work to promote social solidarity and respect the dignity of all individuals.”
Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence issued a statement: “My heart breaks for the families of those killed today at the synagogue in Pittsburgh and I’m praying for the speedy recovery of those injured.
“It is both disheartening and unacceptable how hate is being spread across our country today. Hatred and antisemitism are not American values. I’m reaching out to my Michigan congressional colleagues from both parties so that we can take a concerted, bipartisan stand.
“This violence must be stopped. We must have protections for all people of this country, including families in places of worship. I’m reaching out to our Jewish community leaders and our Oakland County Sheriff, to ensure safety precautions are in place for the many synagogues throughout my district and to reaffirm my commitment to tackle anti-Semitism in our midst.”
Israeli leaders also weighed in.
President Reuven Rivlin said in a statement: “We are thinking of our brothers and sisters, the whole house of Israel, in this time of trouble. We are thinking of the families of those who were murdered and praying for the quick recovery of those who were injured.”
Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon also responded, saying: “we will stand together like a rock against hatred and against those who try to harm Jews all over the world.”
President Donald Trump also reacted to the shooting on Twitter, saying the events are “far more devastating than originally thought.”
Aboard Air Force One, President Trump told reporters the White House is considering canceling the rally that is scheduled in Southern Illinois for Saturday night.
However, Trump may have also reignited a debate over gun control following the shooting. Asked by a reporter about revisiting gun laws as a result of the latest mass shooting, Trump said: “Well, again this has little to do with it if you take a look, if they had protection inside, the results would have been far better. This is a dispute that will always exist.”
The NYPD has increased security at synagogues in New York City after the shooting in Pittsburgh.
Authorities could bring criminal charges against the suspected gunman as soon as today, Scott Brady, the United States attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, said in a news conference. “The full weight of the US Attorney’s office will be utilized in this hate crime prosecution,” he said.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement the Department of Justice “will file hate crimes and other criminal charges against the defendant, including charges that could lead to the death penalty.”
A GoFundMe page has been started for Tree of Life Synagogue. “This fundraiser is meant to help the congregation with the physical damages to the building, as well as the survivors and the victims’ families. Respond to this hateful act with your act of love today. All funds raised will directly go to the Tree of Life Congregation from GoFundMe, and there is no third party intermediary,” the fundraiser posted. Currently over $30,000 has been raised with the amount steadily climbing.
This story was culled from JNS.org and other news sources. For more, go to CNN Live Updates.
Statement from the ADL
“This is a moment when we must call on all Americans of conscience to see with clear eyes that the political violence targeting our communities, driven by antisemitism and racism, has become normalized in our social and political life. Today’s attack comes after weeks of escalated conspiracy theories and rhetoric scapegoating Jewish people, including philanthropist George Soros, which have been driven by candidates for office, arms of the Republican Party, and the President of the United States in campaign ads and at rallies.
“These expressions of hate are not new in our society, but rarely have they been legitimized by such a powerful and visible platform. The mainstreaming of white nationalism in American politics means that our nation is ripe for the type of violence we have witnessed today, this week and throughout the Trump presidency. This charged environment is directed not only against Jews, but also against immigrants, Muslim people, people of color, LGBTQ people, and all other communities under threat in this political environment. Today, we saw these trends culminate and our worst fears realized.
“This violence must end. Americans, Jewish and otherwise, must no longer be forced to live in fear for their lives. And we must unite to build a country where we are all safe and protected.”