On fifth anniversary of Pittsburgh synagogue shootings, lawmakers continue push for change

By: - October 27, 2023 9:03 am

The Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. (Capital-Star photo)

Friday is the anniversary of the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 people dead and the Jewish community reeling, struggling to find answers in the wake of one the worst anti-Semitic attacks in the nation’s history.

Those killed in the attack were Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger.

“Today solemnly marks five years since the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting— a heinous antisemitic attack that claimed the lives of eleven members of our community.,” U.S. Rep. Summer Lee (D-12th District) said Friday. She introduced a resolution in the U.S. House on Friday to recognize the anniversary. “In this time of tremendous pain and heightened trauma, it’s crucial that we reaffirm our commitment to one another and to the values of compassion, tolerance, and unity that define us at our best.

On Oct. 27, 2018, Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life building in Squirrel Hill neighborhood yelling anti-Semitic slurs, armed with an assault rifle and handguns. Many of those who died were gathered for Saturday services at the Dor Hadash, New Light, and Tree of Life congregations. Bowers was convicted in June of 63 counts, including 11 counts of a hate crime that resulted in death. In August, he was sentenced to the death penalty.

“The eleven members from the Dor Hadash, New Light, and Tree of Life congregations who were killed that day were not just statistics, they were beloved members of our community,” Lee said. “They inspire me to work even harder to confront the root causes of antisemitism, hatred, racism, and bigotry so that no community has to live in fear of such senseless violence ever again.”

U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio (D-17th District), who signed Lee’s resolution along with all the Democrats in Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation and 63 members of the House, called the anniversary “a dark and terrible day in the history of Western Pennsylvania and the history of our country. As we remember those lost in this horrific act of violence, hearts are especially heavy in Western Pennsylvania as our community also processes the horrors of Hamas’s deadly terrorist attack in Israel. We must all recommit to the fight against the scourges of antisemitism and hate.”

A similar resolution to recognize the fifth anniversary of the shooting was passed unanimously in the U.S. Senate earlier this week, Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senators Bob Casey and John Fetterman announced. The resolution “expresses solidarity with the Pittsburgh Jewish community and those affected by the tragedy; condemns rising antisemitism in all its forms; and reaffirms the commitment of the United States to protect the right of the people of the United States to freely exercise their religious beliefs,” and honors the first responders and law enforcement who worked to bring Bowers to justice.

“Five years ago, our Nation witnessed a cowardly and horrific act of violence as 11 Jewish worshippers observing Shabbat morning services across three congregations—Tree of Life, Dor Hadash, and New Light—at a synagogue in Pittsburgh were tragically killed,” Sen. Casey said in a statement. “With this unanimously passed resolution, we honor the memory of those taken from us that day and reaffirm in the strongest terms that hatred has no place in our Nation. We must continue working to root out the antisemitism and bigotry that plague our world.”

State Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny), whose district includes Squirrel Hill said getting gun control legislation and legislation against hate crimes passed in Pennsylvania continues to be an uphill battle. But after 25 years of pushing for such legislation, he’s seeing more forward momentum than he ever had in the past. “For most of that time, there was no progress whatsoever,” Frankel told the Capital-Star.

He said there are four bills moving through the Democratic-controlled state House, which he thinks will receive further consideration before the end of the year and be sent to the Republican-controlled state Senate. He is the prime sponsor of anti-hate crime House Bill 1024, 1026 and 1027, and co-sponsor of House Bill 1018, which would provide a way for family members or a judge to seek an “extreme risk protection order” that would temporarily remove guns from someone in crisis.

“And I remain hopeful that they’ll receive some bipartisan support,” Frankel said. “There has been, in the slow and deliberate way the legislative process proceeds, some progress, but there is much work left to be done. ”

Dana Kellerman is a congregant of Dor Hadash and policy director at Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence, a program of CeaseFire PA. She told the Capital-Star that her organization’s work “to advocate for legislation that reduces gun violence so that other communities will never face the devastation we have experienced” continues five years on.

“Until we elect people who make better gun laws and make gun safety and ending gun violence a priority it’s unlikely that we’re going to have the laws that we deserve,” Kellerman said. “It’s not just closing one background check, closing the loophole and making sure that we have secure storage that protects kids and protects the rest of us from juvenile mass shooters. And that we have an extreme risk law. We need all of those laws if we’re really going to end this epidemic.”

She noted that other states that have suffered mass shootings have started with a smaller group of laws and worked from there, such as Connecticut, site of the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012 that left 26 people dead, 20 of them kindergarten students. That state’s legislators have fine-tuned its laws over time, she said.

“These gun violence deaths — they shouldn’t be written in stone,” Kellerman said. “They are preventable, and we just need to do the work.”

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Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim Lyons is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications. Follow her on Threads @social_kimly