Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life congregation had just begun the Saturday morning service when Robert Bowers burst in, carrying a Colt AR-15 model SPI assault rifle and three Glock .357 automatic pistols.
“All Jews must die!” Bowers announced.
As usual, the early arrivals to the service had taken seats at the back, which put them closest to Bowers. He began firing, killing seven of the eight seated there.
“Seven of my congregants were shot dead in my sanctuary,” Myers later said. “My holy place has been defiled.”
The ill-fated early arrivals included 97-year-old Rose Mallinger. She was born in 1921 and had passed into her teens as Adolf Hitler rose to power, then murdered Jews in their millions.
All these years later, Mallinger was gunned down by a maniac spouting hateful words right out of the Holocaust. She died in the very place where her twin grandchildren, Amy and Eric, had their respective bat mitzvah and bar mitzvah in 1986.
President Trump later suggested that armed security at the synagogue might have saved lives, but it’s more likely that the presence of an armed guard would have done no more than cause Bowers the inconvenience of shooting one.
As the violence began, at 9:50 a.m., no guard was present and Bowers proceeded uninterrupted. After killing the seven in the sanctuary, he murdered four other adults elsewhere in the building, then made his way to the third floor. He might have added a number of children to his 11 victims, but the class usually held there had been canceled.
By this time, the police were responding to the scene, all of them far better trained and equipped than your average security guard. They raced into gunfire to save people they did not know, just as they would have done had this been a church, a mosque, or any other place.
“They’re committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews,” the subsequent criminal complaint quotes Bowers calling out to police.
Bowers managed to shoot three cops before he was himself wounded and taken into custody. A fourth cop was injured. An explosives detection dog was brought in to ensure that Bowers had not planted bombs, the police being all the more mindful of the threat after another madman sent 14 devices to various Trump critics over the previous week.
Trump is not known to be an anti-Semite. His son-in-law is Jewish and his daughter converted to her husband's faith.
While Trump never targets Jews, he does target undocumented immigrants, speaking of them as an invading horde of criminals.
Bowers held similar views about immigrants, but connected that bigotry with virulent anti-Semitism after learning that a Jewish organization called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was in a partnership with federal authorities to assist refugees.
“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” Bowers wrote on Gab shortly before he strode up to the synagogue. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
At six feet and 225 pounds, Bowers would have had little trouble killing a 97-year old woman with his bare hands. But he needed firearms to murder 11 people and then take on the police. He could not be an active shooter unless he had something to shoot.
A profile picture Bower posted of himself after joining Gab in January of this year shows him holding a radar gun, like those used to measure bullet velocities. He was likely aware that force increased exponentially with velocity. An assault rifle round strikes with more than four times the force of a handgun bullet, translating to a shockwave that spreads the destruction outside the slug’s actual path, shredding tissue, tearing organs, and severing blood vessels. The effect must have been especially ghastly on a frail victim such as Mallinger.
No wonder a clearly shaken Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich later described the scene as one of the worst he’d ever witnessed.
After rightly describing Saturday's mass murder as a horrible crime, President Trump sought to justify his decision to go ahead with an appearance at a convention in Indiana and a rally in Illinois by saying that the New York Stock Exchange had gone ahead and reopened the day after 9/11.
In truth, the stock exchange did not reopen for six days. And you would think Trump would have known that, being not just a New Yorker but the owner of an office building located on the other side of Wall Street from the Stock Exchange.
Trump made both appearances on Saturday, even as Mallinger and the 10 other murdered worshippers lay dead in the synagogue.
The woman whose adulthood started at the time of Nazism and the Holocaust ended her life being photographed, examined and identified by investigators, while our president roused his base in ways that she might have found all too familiar.
Early Sunday morning, Mallinger and the other murder victims were removed from the synagogue and transported to the medical examiner’s office. A blood-soaked holy book remained on the floor.
Back in July, Rabbi Myers had written in the Tree of Life Synagogue blog of the government’s failure to take meaningful action after mass shootings such as the high school in Parkland, Florida:
“Despite continuous calls for sensible gun control and mental health care, our elected leaders in Washington knew that it would fade away in time. Unless there is a dramatic turnaround in the midterm elections, I fear that that the status quo will remain unchanged, and school shootings will resume. I shouldn’t have to include in my daily morning prayers that God should watch over my wife and daughter, both teachers, and keep them safe.”
Myers had then asked, “Where are our leaders?”
The rabbi did not foresee that in three months, he would go from worrying about school shootings to seeing a gunman armed with an assault rifle and three handguns—all legally obtained—burst into his Saturday service.
Myers survived to speak at an interfaith vigil on Sunday and he proved to be the very best kind of leader, offering words of sanity at the close of an insane week.
“So God, why us?” he began. “Why couldn’t [Bowers] turn his car a different direction?”
Myers said that during a sleepless night after the shootings, his thoughts had gone to the 23rd Psalm, which instructs, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
Myers’ voice now rose.
“Well God, I want!” he said. “What I want you can't give me. You can't return these 11 beautiful souls.”
He then recalled aloud a later section of the psalm.
“You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.”
He went on to report, “My texts, my emails, my Facebook overflow with love from strangers, people I’ve never met, people who are not from the United States, but from all over the word, Jewish, Christians, Muslims, all with the same message: ‘We are here for you.’”
The internet is not just the realm of trolls and hate-mongers. It could also be a source of uncommon good.
“My cup overflows with love,” Myers declared.
He noted, “That’s how you defeat hate.”
He added that he had been shown much love since coming to Pittsburgh a year before.
“‘I’m an immigrant,” he said. “I’m from New York.”
The auditorium filled with laughter that might not have seemed possible, followed by applause.
“We won’t let hate keep us down,” he went on. “How do you stop it? We’ve been trying to stop hate since the early days of the Bible. Cain and Abel. That's not a success story.”
He said that the story of Noah seemed to suggest that humankind is prone to evil.
“What a depressing thought,” he said, “Isn’t there a chance for good?”
“The answer is, yes there is. You don't have to follow the prone-to-evil path. We can also be prone to good if you decide to follow that path.”
He said the path to good begins with the words we utter, most particularly by our political leaders.
“It has to start with our leaders,” he said.
That brought cheers, proof of how desperately people want leadership worthy of what is best in us. Myers was careful to say that he was not addressing any particular political persuasion.
Myers then spoke to all present.
“Stop the words of hate,” he said. “My mother always taught me if you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing.”
He was his mother’s son as he continued.
“It starts with one simple step: Just stop the hate. Don’t say it. Zip the lip. Just don’t say it.”
And he was not only talking to the politicians.
“It takes just one person to make that difference,” he said.
“The question I leave for you is: ‘Are any of you that person?’ I leave you with that question.”