Rabbi recounts fear and heroism during deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history
PITTSBURGH — Rabbi Jonathan Perlman took the witness stand Thursday wearing the yarmulke he had on the day a gunman burst into his Pittsburgh synagogue during Sabbath services and began shooting anyone he could find.
The skullcap Jews wear as a reminder of God's presence fell off during the Oct. 27, 2018, attack on the Tree of Life synagogue, which was the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. Authorities kept it as evidence for years, and Perlman, the rabbi for one of the three congregations who shared the building, only recently got it back.
As he recalled the terrifying events of that day, Perlman, 59, also assumed his role as a teacher to explain the stitched Hebrew lettering on his yarmulke, which read, “There is nothing aside from Him,”
“This is a God who is present to all aspects of creation," he told the federal jury.
It was one of several moments during the trial over a brutal act of violence against Jews in which survivors used the opportunity to educate the jury about their faith — a show of defiance before the man who tried to destroy them and who has expressed little emotion while seated at the defense table.
Robert Bowers, a 50-year-old truck driver from the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin, faces 63 federal charges related to the killings of 11 worshippers, who came from all three of the congregations who used the synagogue — New Light, Dor Hadash and the Tree of Life. If convicted of certain charges, which include 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death, Bowers could face the death penalty.
Prosecutors say Bowers expressed a hatred of Jews online and at the synagogue on the day of the attack. One of his attorneys acknowledged during opening statements Tuesday that Bowers carried out the attack but tried to cast doubt on whether the hate crimes charges were applicable. His defense team’s legal maneuverings have focused not so much on preventing his conviction as on preventing his execution.
Perlman, the rabbi of New Light Congregation, recounted arriving at the congregation's basement sanctuary in the synagogue shortly before worship began on that Oct 27. Member Melvin Wax led in an opening prayer in which “we talk about how grateful we are to start a new day,” he recalled.
Perlman then heard what he immediately recognized as gunfire coming from elsewhere in the building. “I said, ‘We’re in danger, follow me.'” He guided Wax and two other worshippers, Carol Black and Barry Werber, into a nearby storage room in the labyrinthine building.
He said Wax, who was 87 years old and hard of hearing, wanted to see what had happened. “I said, ‘Please don’t. Stay inside.’ He didn't listen to me.”
As Black and Werber testified on Wednesday, Wax opened the door to look out and was shot and killed.
Perlman had left the area and was “trying to find my own hiding space” when he saw Tree of Life member Stephen Weiss. He called Weiss a “man of extraordinary courage” for coming down to the New Light area, even while the attack was underway on the main floor, to make sure New Light members in the basement knew what was happening.
Perlman eventually found a side exit, climbed over a fence into a neighboring yard and found police, informing them of where the others were hiding. With the attack still ongoing, “they told me to get the hell out of here,” and he went home.
Weiss told jurors Wednesday that he was one of 12 worshippers that day at the start of Tree of Life's service, which was being held in a separate chapel. He knew the head count because, as a ritual leader of the congregation, he made sure there was the required minimum — a minyan — of 10 adult worshippers in the room. After worshippers heard a loud crash, two them went to see what happened. Weiss went to the chapel door but stayed in the room to maintain the minyan.
He heard gunfire, saw shell casings clattering on the floor and turned back into the room, where Rabbi Jeffrey Myers was evacuating those who were able to move quickly and urging the more frail members to get down.
Weiss escaped through a door at the front of the chapel and, after going downstairs to warn New Light members, found his own way outside.
He noted that although the synagogue's door was locked on weekdays, when the office staff could buzz people in, it was routinely unlocked on the Sabbath.
“We prided ourselves on having our doors open” to all people, he said.
Asked by a prosecutor if his Tree of Life congregation has been able to gather a minyan as easily since the attack, Weiss said it hasn't.
“We don’t have the same attendance from those members who were very reliably there,” he said. When asked why not, he said: “Because they have been killed.”