Where To Find Support During Ongoing Coverage of the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre Trial

The murder trial for Robert G. Bowers is set to begin April 24 in Pittsburgh.
Shutterstock 1216488049


The next several months are expected to conjure up some devastating memories for much of Pittsburgh, particularly for family and friends of the victims of the Oct. 27, 2018, synagogue massacre and members of the Jewish community.

The trial for Robert G. Bowers, the man accused of massacring 11 and injuring six in an antisemitic attack of three synagogue congregations meeting at the Tree of Life building in Squirrel Hill, is expected to begin April 24. He faces a host of federal charges in the case, including criminal homicide, attempted criminal homicide and ethnic intimidation.

Bowers, of Baldwin Borough, previously agreed to a plea deal to avoid the death penalty. The request was denied and federal prosecutors told U.S. District Judge Robert Colville in an April 3 filing: “It will be the jury’s ultimate decision whether to impose the death penalty — not the government’s. The United States’ ‘goal’ in this prosecution is the pursuit of justice, not punishment,” according to an Associated Press article by Mark Scolforo.

The 11 victims of the three congregations — Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash — were Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Irving Younger and Melvin Wax. 

Families of nine of these — Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Cecil and David Rosenthal, Rose Mallinger, Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Daniel Stein and Melvin Waxsigned a letter to the editor in the April 16 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette saying that they were pushing for the death penalty. The letter stated:Our loved ones were taken from us in a brutal, cold-blooded act of hatred and violence. We, the undersigned, will feel further violated by letting the defendant have the easy way out. His crimes deserve the death penalty.”

Tree Of Life

Ongoing coverage

News outlets across the country are expected to report on the trial in what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in American History. When a case of this magnitude hits so close to home, retraumatization and secondary trauma associated with this coverage can ripple through the community — even among those who are not directly involved in the crime.

Staff at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the 10.27 Healing Partnership say they can help anyone suffering from this trauma. Along with their regular schedule of programming, the Healing Partnership will have drop-in therapists at the Squirrel Hill center at 5738 Forbes Ave. during the trial. Dates and times will be posted on the website closer to the start of proceedings.

Adam Hertzman, associate vice president of marketing for the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, says a number of organizations are working together and with law enforcement to make sure the city is safe during the trial and that there are mental health resources available for anyone who needs them, regardless of what faith they observe or what community they live in.

“Security and mental health and wellness go together,” he explains. “We want people to feel safe and we want to make sure there are mental health resources available. We also want people to know feelings of retraumatization, although they’re scary, are normal.”

The 10.27 Healing Partnership, which was established by the Jewish Federation as a resiliency center after the attack, provides counseling, support groups, wellness activities and other services to anyone in need of healing from the synagogue attack or other trauma. You do not have to be a member of the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill (the Healing Partnership’s home) to attend the Healing Partnership events and groups.

Hertzman notes in the coming months, the organizations will provide opportunities for the community to volunteer and come together to learn about healing resources. For instance, the Healing Partnership has teamed up with Repair the World Pittsburgh for a three-part community gardening series through May 2. The series, titled “Chai Chai V’kayam,” focuses on self-sustainment and healing through connection and the earth. 

“If there’s anything people take away from reading about the upcoming trial is that if they need help, there are resources available,” Hertzman assures. 

Ranisa Davidson, program manager at the 10.27 Healing Partnership, says the organization acts as a safe haven for anyone suffering from trauma.

Davidson adds the staff knows how isolating grief can be.

“You do not need to be directly affected by the shooting or you do not need to be Jewish or a member of the Jewish community. We are here to serve anyone and everyone,” she says. “No one has to suffer alone. We know how painful this journey is. We know it’s been hard, especially with the trial coming up. They don’t have to grieve alone if they don’t want to.”

Davidson says while the attack affected the three synagogues, “it was really an attack on our whole city.”

“It was agonizing to see the images and wait for the list of the victims, and to know that our friends and community members were going to be forever altered by that day. It breaks our hearts over and over again to see this happening in more communities every day.”

She continues, “We have been forced to come together, to heal together and grow together, and create these resources to help us go through these long and painful processes. There are more families going through this, children and teachers who are watching these horrific things happen. We want to make sure these therapeutic resources are in place; this journey is far from over.”

She says their doors will be open for anyone, even if it’s someone who is feeling impacted by the news.

“We want to stress that it’s OK to give yourself permission to turn off the news,” she adds. “This trial will be covered intensely, both locally and nationally. People need to remember to practice self-care; it’s very important to give yourself permission to not watch every piece of news as this unfolds.”

She notes there is no single or right way to heal, which is why the Healing Partnership holds a variety of programs each month, such as a drum circle, individual and group therapy and Wellness Wednesdays that include a wide range of wellness services for “gaining resiliency and strength.”

“We stress the importance of being together,” she says. “When we’re grieving, it’s very easy to want to retreat into our own private quarters and grieve alone. We encourage people to come together as a community, whether at our center, a place of worship, etc., because we realize the value of human-to-human connection.”

She adds the partnership believes healing is possible and hopes the community will take advantage of the mental health and wellness resources they have available to them. 

Embed from Getty Images

Security measures

Shawn Brokos, director of community security with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, notes while organizations are working closely with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies ahead of the trial, the federation has had a security program in place since 2017. 

The program includes security assessments, Go Packs with survival items inside in case of an active threat or emergency and Blue Point Emergency Alert systems in various locations that alert everyone in the building, along with law enforcement and Jewish organization leaders of an active threat.

“Our primary responsibility is made up of four arms — making sure all of our 62 brick-and-mortar Jewish locations in the city have good physical security, conducting active threat training (since 2017, we have trained 26,000 people in the Greater Pittsburgh region), threat mitigation (the busiest part) and law enforcement liaison.”

She assures that agencies have been working closely for several months to make sure the community is safe ahead of Bowers’ trial.

“At this point, we are not aware of any direct or indirect threats related to the trial,” she says. “But, I always say: ‘Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.’”

Embed from Getty Images

One tool they are grateful for is grant funding through the state to provide armed guards at various Jewish locations, if necessary.

“Oct. 27 was a Saturday, and by Monday, all of our organizations were open. We are not going to live in fear. We had armed guards at most of our locations, and I envision doing something similar if we receive a threat at any of our locations,” she says.

Brokos and her team have also been holding webinars for the public to educate them on the federal criminal trial process and how it works to help reduce some of their anxiety.

“Unlike the events on Oct. 27, 2018, we know jury selection starts on April 24, so we are able to be proactive, plan and prepare. From a security lens, that is absolutely necessary.”

In the last three years, Brokos, her team and local law enforcement have been responding to an increase in reported threats to the Jewish community. In 2020, there were 44 incidents reported. Eighty-two in 2021 and 122 in 2022. 

“Some are antisemitic in nature, some are suspicious in nature,” she explains. “When we receive a report, we add it to a law enforcement database, which helps with response time. We receive about one or two a week on average. On Monday night, we responded to a hate crime directed against a local resident.”

Brokos notes while the number of threats has increased, it is also credited to the rise in reports from community members who may have been hesitant to report incidents in the past. 

She adds people are appreciative of the federation’s efforts because staff has been able to effectively mitigate threats.

“It also helps for them to know that we are not going to tolerate this. We need to stand together and look out for one another. It gives solidarity and peace of mind. Sometimes knowing there’s a person you can call helps to alleviate some of that anxiety.”

Brokos served with the FBI before accepting her role with the Jewish Federation, and was one of the first responders at the scene of the attack.

“That day was one of the most horrific days I had endured in law enforcement, and I had been in law enforcement for 23 years at that point,” she notes of her decision to come to Pittsburgh. “But, the community response was something so amazing that I will never forget it. The community banded together and it was something I wanted to be a part of.”

Hands At Prayer


Personal trauma

Hertzman says antisemitism has been on the rise for more than a decade.

“One factor is likely the rise of coordinated communication on social media,” he notes. “Another factor is any time there is a period of social or economic change, there will be a group of people looking for someone to blame. It’s not just with antisemitism; it’s a rise of hatred in many different forms.”

Hertzman says it has been trying for the Jewish community in Pittsburgh and knows the trial has the potential to retraumatize people.

“It doesn’t just affect those that were in the building and the victims of the families, but those who know the victims or were in the area,” he says. “Many people might not realize they are carrying that trauma with them.”

Hertzman said he suffered his own trauma after the attack, but really wasn’t aware of it at the time.

“I was working at the Jewish Federation during and after the attack,” he says. “The Jewish Federation’s response was a whirlwind in the days, weeks and months following, and at the time, I didn’t understand that trauma had affected me.”

It wasn’t until the staff was recently taking part in an active threat training that Hertzman realized his palms were sweaty and his heart began racing. He then sought counseling.

“One thing I have learned in the last five years is that healing is not a linear process,” he says. “You’ll always hear people say, ‘I hope you feel better.’ It doesn’t work that way; there are ups and downs.”

Hertzman notes he has mixed feelings as the trial date looms. On one hand, he feels empathy for the survivors and members of the victims’ families and friends. On the other hand, he feels proud of the work the Jewish Federation is doing and what Jewish Pittsburgh has accomplished.

“I think we’ve shown Pittsburgh and the world that we can be a resilient community,” he adds.

Davidson says she grew up in Squirrel Hill and her family is here, so she, too, suffered her own trauma in the wake of the attack.

While so much bad has come of this, Davidson is reminded that there is still good in the world.

“It helps to focus on what’s good in our own community and in those around us. I really feel there is a true healing power to that. In following the traditions of Judaism, ‘May their memories be a blessing.’ Remember the 11 victims. Learn their names, say their names and carry on their legacies through acts of kindness.”

Categories: The 412