Amidst the Shots
Local women describe their uncle’s nightmare at Tree of Life.
Shelli Liebman Dorfman Contributing Writer
During the attack on congregants inside Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, Barry Werber hid in fear in a dark store room, listened to gunshots — and watched his friends Melvin Wax and Cecil Rosenthal die.
Above: Barry Werber, a proud Air Force veteran, who says he never experienced anything as frightening as the synagogue shooting
Werber’s first realization of the shootings came after he heard loud crashing noises from the hallway.
“He thought the Kiddush table set up for the bris had been knocked over, and he went to the doorway to see if he could help,” said his niece, Retta London of Farmington Hills. “That was when he saw Cecil, one of the two brothers who had been greeters, as he lay dying on the stairs.” Cecil’s brother David was also killed in the attack.
The shooter was facing away from the door of the New Light Congregation chapel in the basement of the building where Werber stood. He was able to quickly go back inside the room and call 911 as the synagogue’s rabbi, Jonathan Perlman, pushed him, along with Wax and Carol Gottfried Black into the storage room. The gunman did not see them and went into the building’s kitchen where he shot and killed Daniel Stein and Dr. Richard Gottfried, Black’s brother.
In a USA Today video, Werber said that during a pause in the gunfire, Wax pushed open the door to the darkened closet where they hid. “I tried to stop him,” he said. “I hear some shots and he falls back into the room. There’s a pause and the door opened again. I’m pressed up against the wall. The gentleman walks in with a long gun. He doesn’t see us, thank God. He stepped over Mel’s body, stepped back and walked out.”
At that point, London said, “Uncle Barry felt Mel’s neck, but there was no pulse.”
‘Waves of Horror’
She first learned of the attack when the MSNBC show she was watching was interrupted for a newsbreak. “When I heard Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, my heart stopped,” she said. “Uncle Barry is always there.”
A phone call to Werber’s son and daughter-in-law confirmed he had been inside the building during the shooting, but he had gotten out.
“Hearing he was safe and in a SWAT team van was a major relief and made us believe at first that others were able to escape,” said London, who grew up in Pittsburgh, where she met her husband, Mark, when both were both college students there. “The waves of horror continued throughout the afternoon as we were hearing updates on the news.”
London said she knew or knew of several victims of the shooting.
“I recognized the Rosenthal brothers right away when I saw their pictures because they looked so much like their cousins who lived across the street from where I grew up,” she said. “I remember as very young children they came over to play with their cousins. My sister was friends with them. My cousin Ron swam with them as teenagers.”
An active synagogue member, Werber regularly attended services. “I have long-admired this about him,” said London’s daughter Erika Bocknek of Farmington Hills, who has celebrated the b’nai mitzvah of her family members in the Tree of Life building. “He is very consistent in his faith and practice. I am so proud of his courage that day, for telling his story and for being a pillar of his community.
“All of my mom’s family is in Pittsburgh. We spent so much of my childhood there. It’s my second home. I am feeling sadness that a beautiful city and a neighborhood with so much history will become synonymous with gun violence in the minds of so many. Squirrel Hill has long been the Jewish cultural center of Pittsburgh, a place of promise, family and interconnectedness. My zaydie, who I loved so deeply, had a deli there, and my family continues to call it home.”
On the phone with a 911 dispatcher when the gunman entered the store room, Werber feared he would be shot and was thankful his flip-phone cell does not light up during conversations, keeping him from being visible.
Werber was observing his mother’s yahrtzeit the day of the shooting.
“He was wearing my bubbie’s wedding band with his own last Saturday,” London said. “He said she was watching over him.”
In the CBS video, Werber added: “The good Lord was watching me.”
London said Werber “is overwhelmed with attending funerals and shivahs and mourning the senseless loss of his friends.” He has been interviewed by many news sources. “The relentless media attention has been wearing on him though, and we can see it. Telling the story over and over is so hard,” London said. “Telling how he literally saw two of his friends die is unimaginably hideous and horrifying.
“He looks so strong on the TV clips that I’ve seen, but I can feel how he is suffering inside. We’re praying for an end to that part of it so he can begin to heal.” When they spoke, she said, “He asked us to pray for his friends.
“I always thought my uncle would be famous for his beautiful singing voice or the many ways in which he supports his community both in and out of synagogue. This unwelcome fame that has arrived on his doorstep is unimaginable.”