Editor’s Note: Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers has served as the rabbi and cantor for the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh since the summer of 2017. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Jurors have decided that the man convicted in the mass shooting five years ago at the Pittsburgh synagogue I lead should be put to death. The decision, marks the final chapter of an emotional, months-long trial, that should bring closure to members of my congregation and two other congregations affected by the attack.
And yet, I still wonder: What is justice, when 11 souls have been stolen from their loved ones and community? I pose that question to myself often. I know the entire American Jewish community is asking along with me.
The shooting took place on a day when the synagogue was hosting three congregations: Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light, for Shabbat services. As a survivor of the massacre and the rabbi of those we lost from the Tree of Life congregation, the guilty verdict itself was a long-awaited cathartic moment. I’m grateful for the compassion of those who have continued sending their love, asking how I’m doing and how the community’s doing.
Permit me to try to verbalize the emotions of a survivor of a mass shooting. The impact of the events of October 27, 2018 — or simply, 10/27 — and other attacks on Jewish communities around the world is far broader and deeper than many recognize. It’s rare today to find a Jewish institution without armed security. It’s not uncommon to walk through scanning equipment on your way in.
A woman I know always looks for an exit door to pray next to. A business owner I know no longer hangs Chanukah decorations at her store, out of concern for her employees. There are people who lost their faith and no longer pray. They’re all victims of antisemitism in America.
Personally, I thought I was doing a relatively good job of integrating the horror, learning how to live with it and utilizing the newly discovered tools in my toolbox. Then came the trial.
Like other survivors, I’ve had to relive the nightmare. Once again, I heard my own, 56-minute 911 call. I heard myself whispering the final Jewish confessional recited before death, which I expected would be my fate. Once again, I heard the gunfire, heard the cries and screams of my congregants as they were slaughtered. I have survivor’s remorse, regret caused by surviving when others around me died.
Reason tells me there was nothing I could have done to help the members of my congregation or the other congregations who were killed that terrible day. Even so, I desperately wanted superpowers to save them. I could not, and am forced again to process my guilt.
The anguish I feel isn’t the same kind felt every day by the two injured survivors. Nor is it like the pain felt by the five police officers who were injured after rushing to the scene of the shooting. It is different, but it is potent. I taught myself once how to integrate these feelings into my being and I know I’ll be able to do so again. Right now though, it’s just plain hard.
I also know how it feels to look at that day in the context of our people’s history. Jews carry with us everywhere the knowledge of what it’s like to be targeted for being Jewish. The shooting came just two weeks shy of the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a horrific example of state-sponsored terrorism, a pogrom unleashed upon the Jewish communities of Germany and Austria.
On that night, police took part in the violence, cordoning off the Aryan public to keep them safe while their Jewish fellow citizens were arrested, assaulted and murdered as synagogues went up in flames. Some 48 hours later, 30,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps and the Jewish community was ordered to pay a fine of one billion Reichsmarks.
In 2018, in Pittsburgh, police kept bystanders at a safe distance as first responders ran towards the gunfire, bravely breaching the building to save us. A SWAT team found and surrounded me, guiding me to an exit door. One officer who was among my rescuers ordered: “Rabbi, run your ass off!”
Later that day, the FBI brought in several teams that meticulously gathered and recorded evidence that the government would use to make its case at trial. We waited four years and eight months for one word that resonated firmly 63 times: guilty.
I shared the differences between Kristallnacht and 10/27 with Amy Hahn, the US attorney who delivered in her powerful closing arguments during the guilt or innocence phase of the trial. I wanted her to understand that throughout the 4,000-year history of my people, we’ve been unaccustomed to police rushing towards danger to save us or governments demanding justice for us.
I wanted her to recognize what a powerful and historic moment this was for the entire Jewish community. And I wanted her to know that we will be forever grateful to her and the entire team of US attorneys for prosecuting this case.
When then-US Attorney General William Barr decided to pursue the death penalty in this trial, I asked our congregation for their thoughts. It soon became clear that there was no clear consensus: many supported the death penalty, and many did not.
Therefore, my position and that of the Tree of Life Congregation has been, and will continue to be, complete confidence in the judicial process. The juror in the case now have made their decision.
In the years we have spent waiting for this trial to take place, many of us have been stuck in neutral. It was a challenge to move forward with the looming specter of a murder trial. But as rabbi of this congregation, God has been with me throughout this ordeal, and I am confident that God will continue to guide me.
We are left to ask whether this outcome will bring closure. And what does closure even look like? How do we heal after this re-traumatization? How does a faith community like ours move forward after such a tragedy?
My congregation will return to worship at the corner of Shady and Wilkins. We’ve also begun to reimagine what we can be, and last year, a wholly new Tree of Life was launched as a national nonprofit organization dedicated to uprooting antisemitism.
Even with our plans for the future, I still have more questions than answers. But I also have my faith, bolstered by the respect and concern with which my community has been treated by our government and our fellow citizens. For this, I remain forever grateful.
This article was updated following the jury’s death penalty verdict.