PITTSBURGH (RNS) — The testimonies were harrowing.
A 911 dispatcher recalled the moment she understood the woman on the other end of the line could no longer answer because she was dead. An older synagogue member described fleeing into a dark storage closet stacked with folding chairs and card tables. And a rabbi cried as he relayed how he hid in a bathroom and uttered the central Jewish prayer, the Shema, believing he was about to die.
Week One of the trial against Robert Bowers, the man accused of killing 11 worshippers in the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, reopened old wounds and resurfaced painful memories, and not only among the dozen or so people who testified this week.
“I’m hearing a lot of vicarious and secondary trauma,” said Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, set up to provide counseling and connection to people affected by the Oct. 27 massacre.
Feinstein has attended each day of the trial along with one or two of her associates to offer support to anyone who needs it.
The 10.27 Healing Partnership was created as part of a government-funded resiliency center for survivors of mass shootings. Along with a host of other Jewish social service groups, it has surrounded Pittsburgh residents with social and emotional support in the four years since the massacre, considered the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history, and now during the long-awaited trial.
Painful as the trial may be, survivors and families are also benefitting from support that perhaps only Pittsburgh, considered the last urban Jewish enclave outside of New York City, can provide.
Some 50,000 Jews live in the greater Pittsburgh area. As many as half live within the city limits, mostly around Squirrel Hill, the site of Tree of Life, the synagogue where three separate congregations were holding Shabbat services when the shooter burst in.
“I think where we’re unified is recognizing that it’s a community in great pain,” said Brian Schreiber, chief executive of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, at a press conference Thursday (June 1) outside the federal courthouse. “But I would also say that I believe that many, many Pittsburghers, well beyond the Jewish community, are feeling that sense of pain, watching the news accounts.”
To prepare for the trial, the 10.27 Healing Partnership offered survivors and their families a two-session course with a University of Pittsburgh law professor to walk them through the legal maze of a capital case.
“Our foundational idea was that knowledge is power and collective knowledge is more powerful still,” said David Harris, a law professor specializing in criminal law who is also Jewish.
During the two 90-minute sessions, Harris explained that the guilt phase of the trial will likely span three weeks. It will then be followed by an even longer sentencing phase. Bowers, 50, faces 63 federal charges, including hate crime-related counts and the prospect of the death penalty.
Seven of the nine families affected by the massacre (the 11 victims included a married couple and two brothers) have indicated they support the death penalty.
“For the defense, everything is intended to avoid the death penalty,” Harris said. “What they’re contesting is whether he had the intention of killing people because they were Jewish. That’s the whole case, essentially.”
(Bowers has pleaded not guilty, but his defense attorneys are not challenging his guilt.)
U.S. District Judge Robert Colville said he will split the death penalty phase into two parts: Is Bowers eligible for the death penalty? If so, should Bowers get the death penalty?
Throughout the trial, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh is offering each of the survivor families extra security. Its security team has also asked local police to increase patrols around each of their homes.
Shawn Brokos, the federation’s security director, said she and her team are keeping tabs on online platforms frequented by white supremacists and others sympathetic with Bowers.
“We’re monitoring very closely different chat rooms or platforms where white supremacists communicate with one another,” said Brokos, a retired FBI agent. “We also rely on the community to report what they’re seeing and hearing.”
The federation, which funds eight Jewish institutions around Pittsburgh, including schools, senior housing and college campus groups, has greatly beefed up security in the wake of the massacre. It has installed in 18 Jewish institutions an emergency alert system called BluePoint. The system allows people to pull a lever, similar to a traditional red fire alarm, that sends information, including pictures, to law enforcement and other parties.
But perhaps the most effective support for victims and survivors of the mass shooting is the mantra that Feinstein and her group has been offering for nearly four years: Don’t be alone.
“Trauma is something we’re equipped to handle best when we’re in relationship with people and when we don’t feel shame or alone,” said Feinstein, a licensed professional counselor.
That message appears to have come through, even among newcomers. Carole Zawatsky, who moved to Pittsburgh seven months ago as the chief executive of the new Tree of Life building, which will house a museum, memorial and sanctuary, said she feels it.
“There’s a tremendous sense of holding one another’s heart. An absolute understanding without saying anything that everyone feels the pain and sorrow — the entire community, Jews and non-Jews alike,” she said. “The beauty of the Pittsburgh community coming together in moments after the tragedy is what you see now.”