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After death-penalty verdict, Pittsburgh Jewish community expresses relief, looks ahead

A federal jury condemned the shooter, who shot and killed 11 Jewish men and women at prayer in synagogue for Shabbat-morning services.

Rose Mallinger, who was killed on Oct. 27, 2018 at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh, with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchild. Courtesy: Amy Mallinger.
Rose Mallinger, who was killed on Oct. 27, 2018 at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh, with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchild. Courtesy: Amy Mallinger.

After a federal jury announced its verdict on Wednesday—that the gunman who killed 11 worshippers in the bloodiest massacre of Jews in U.S. history should be sentenced to death—a small group of community members converged at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood to express a collective sigh of both anguish and relief.

At the gathering of about 40, a mood of hope, solidarity and gratitude prevailed as family members of the fallen addressed the press for the first time since the trial began in May.

Stanley Mallinger is the elder son of Rose Mallinger, who was a healthy 97-year-old when she was shot and killed. His sister, Andrea Wedner, was severely injured in the attack.

“This was the worse of the punishments—not the lesser—and we think that’s what he deserved,” Mallinger told JNS, of Robert Bowers, a 50-year-old truck driver from Baldwin, Pa., who embraced extreme nativist and antisemitic views.

“All these Jews need to die,” Bowers told police when they apprehended him. He murdered 11 Jewish worshippers with an AK-47 and shot two other civilians and five police officers.

After convicting Bowers, jurors had been directed to choose between giving him life in prison or the death penalty. They chose the latter, which had to be unanimous.

Before a roomful of national and local media, Jeffrey Myers, the rabbi of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue, where the attack occurred on Oct. 27, 2018, noted that the jury’s verdict came on a significant day on the Jewish calendar: Tu B’Av. The minor holiday, which falls on the 15th of Av, is referred to as the Jewish day of love, dating at least back to ancient times.

“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Myers said of the verdict. “It was meant to be today.”

‘Immense embrace from the halls of justice’

Myers expressed gratitude to the U.S. justice system, which handed down a verdict that affirms that violent antisemitism is unacceptable in America.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue. Credit: Cantors.org.

“Today, we received an immense embrace from the halls of justice,” he said. “Our government does not condone antisemitism in its most vile form that we’ve witnessed.” 

He added that Jews “are embraced by a system that supported, nurtured and upheld us, and made the point very clear: We have the right to practice Judaism, and no one will ever take that right away from us.”

Myers also referred to support from other faith communities.

“Today, we are embraced by love—and not only in the judicial system but from all of the helpers around the world who reached out to us within seconds of the verdict to once again uplift us and hold us,” he said.

Carol Black and Deb Salvin’s brother, Richard Gottfried, was a dentist known in the community for his kindness. The sisters spoke of their sense that justice was served for their brother, who was killed in the shooting.

“When a horrendous crime is committed, it deserves the most severe penalty,” Black said. “I’m glad I wasn’t the one who had to make the decision, but if this kind of heinous crime doesn’t deserve the death penalty, I don’t know what would.”

Others echoed that sentiment.

“Justice has been served, and even though nothing will bring my dad back, I feel like a weight has been lifted and I can breathe a sigh of relief,” said Leigh Stein, whose father, Daniel Stein, was 71 when he was killed.

Diane Rosenthal’s two brothers—David and Cecil Rosenthal, who had developmental disabilities and were avid synagogue-goers—were killed in the shooting. “The Rosenthal family would like to thank the jury for their thoughtful and careful deliberations,” she said.

“Our greatest thank you goes to the prosecution—a team of individuals who worked tirelessly and meticulously to provide the jury with the information they needed in order to deliver a verdict most fitting for the defendant,” said Michele Rosenthal, another sister, speaking on behalf of the family. “The care with which you held the personal stories of our brothers’ lives will forever honor their memories.”

Rose Mallinger with grandchildren
Rose Mallinger, who was killed on Oct. 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh, with her twin grandchildren, Amy and Eric Mallinger. Courtesy: Amy Mallinger.

‘It feels very strange to be happy’

Michele Rosenthal told JNS after the press conference that justice was served.

“My brothers’ memories live on throughout the world, stronger than what happened to them. There will never be closure, but the verdict sends the message that this type of hate crime is wrong,” she said. Perpetrators “will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”

Wedner, whose mother—the nonagenarian Mallinger—was killed in the shooting, continues to recover from the injuries she sustained that day in October 2018. She thanked members of the FBI and local law enforcement “for their testimony and bravery.”

Amy Mallinger, Rose’s granddaughter, and Amy’s uncle, Stanley Mallinger, spoke with JNS after the press conference.

“It’s hard to say it’s a good thing when somebody could be put to death, but it is what we feel is right in this case,” Amy told JNS. “It feels very strange to be happy, but it does feel like the ending we hoped for.”

Stanley told JNS that his sister has been unable to resume her career as a dental hygienist. “Andrea is due for another surgery for shrapnel that is still in her arm,” he said. “She can’t work, which is disappointing, because she loved her job.”

Amy expressed relief and a sense of modest comfort in the trial’s ending and verdict.

“It does feel like a new chapter,” she told JNS. “Yesterday, the waiting brought me back to that day, waiting to hear news that you didn’t know what the answer was going to be.”

“At least we know the whole story now, and we don’t have to speculate how Bubbie was killed,” Amy said, tears in her eyes.

The Mallingers told JNS that it is disappointing and frustrating that it took nearly five years after the massacre for the trial to begin. Delays included complications due to COVID-19 and the defense team’s pleas for a venue change and to take the death penalty off the table.

“We understand COVID-19 happened, but to delay and delay things,” Amy said. “It’s kind of like this cloud that holds over you.”

‘We look forward to rebuilding’

Several survivors of the massacre who wished to testify, including Joe Charny and Holocaust survivor Judah Samet, passed away during the nearly five years the community waited for the trial to commence, Amy said.

Amy told JNS the family remembers her grandmother “as she was, and we wanted the court and the world to know who she was because she was so wonderful.”

“She was always there for everyone who needed her, even for complete strangers,” she added.

Rose Mallinger grew up in Acmetonia, a small Western Pennsylvania town, the fourth of six children of a family that owned a grocery store. “That’s where she got her sweet tooth,” Stanley recalled of his mom.

Amy remembered her grandmother as remarkably healthy and fit for her age. Rose would get down on the floor to play board games with her, noting they often played the “troll matching-card game.”

Rose went to the hair salon weekly and liked taking her grandchildren to Pamela’s P&G Diner, a popular spot in Squirrel Hill. (That location has since closed, but there are three others in the city.)

“She was 97, but you wouldn’t have believed it,” Amy said. “We knew she would have lived for many more years.”

Amy wears her grandmother’s wedding ring as her engagement ring and hopes to be married in 2025 at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue building after it is renovated.

“I’m a lifelong member of Tree of Life,” she said. “We look forward to rebuilding and having happy occasions there.”

Other community members told JNS this week of their emotional states—sorrow that the death penalty needed to be invoked but a belief that it was appropriate for this singularly heinous crime.

“Judaism tends to want to preserve life,” Jon Tucker, a retired orthopedic surgeon who lives in Pittsburgh, told JNS. “But if you’re staring into the face of evil, elimination of evil becomes more important than the preservation of life.”

“I wouldn’t want to be the one to have to make the decision,” he added. “But from what I’ve read, it was justified.”

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