That was the verdict yesterday against Robert Bowers — the first death penalty handed down by a federal jury since 2019.
It goes back to October 27, 2018. It was a Shabbat morning. Bowers entered the Tree of Life -Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He opened fire on the worshipers, and by the time his attack was over, eleven people were killed, and six were wounded.
This happened in the heart of Squirrel Hill, perhaps the last shtetl in America. To quote Mark Oppenheimer, in his book about the killings: “The gunman who at Tree of Life perpetrated the greatest antisemitic attack in American history surely did not know that he was attacking the oldest, most stable, most internally diverse Jewish neighborhood in the United States.”
This has been a time of great heartache for Pittsburgh, especially for its tight-knit Jewish community. The trial and the deliberations on the death penalty have torn the scabs, barely formed, off the wounds of that day.
I have long believed that reasonable people can disagree on the death penalty. You might listen to the Martini Judaism podcast on the topic, and the accompanying article. In the spirit of eilu v’eilu, “these and these,” the classic statement of Jewish debate, I carry those conflictrs within my soul, as well.
On the one hand, I believe that some crimes are so evil that they cry out to the heavens, that they require a kind of communal expiation.
This crime would fall into that category. This was not a mere murder. This was a hate crime. Within minutes, Bowers multiplied the number of previous lethal victims of antisemitic violence in America. It was the bloodiest antisemitic crime in American history. Bowers showed no remorse. He planned this, and executed this, out of a deep-seated, ideologically-driven Jew hatred. He accessed antisemitic sites online. He was disappointed that his crime had not inspired more killings of Jews. There was no evidence that mental illness played any significant role in his actions. If the death penalty was ever intended for a crime, this would be it.
There have been any number of lethal hate crimes in the United States in recent years. The 2015 attack on Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, which claimed nine lives and injured a tenth, is the closest analogy. The shooter, Dylann Roof, was likewise sentenced to death.
On the other hand, there are numerous arguments against capital punishment. Some would say that it contributes to the coarsening of our culture. When we read the testimonies of experts in the grim methodologies of execution, it would seem to violate the constitutional protection against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
In its 75 year history, the state of Israel has only sentenced one person. That was Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution. The Eichmann trial, which began in 1961, was a watershed moment in Israeli and Jewish history, as it was the first time that many people began to encounter the enormity of the Shoah.
And yet, many were opposed to his execution.
In particular, the philosopher Martin Buber. Buber believed that the commandment against murder applied to nations as well as individuals.
His words: “I do not accept the state’s right to take the life of any man [sic]…As far as it depends on us, we should not kill, neither as individuals nor as a society.”
He quoted the Hasidic master, Menachem Mendel of Kotsk: “What the Torah teaches us is this: none but God can command us to destroy a man.” Invoking the biblical story of the binding of Isaac, he said: “‘And if the very smallest angel comes after the command has been given and cautions us: ‘Lay not thy hand upon…’ we should obey him.”
But, what draws my attention at this moment are not the arguments — legal, philosophical, and emotional — for or against the death penalty.
Rather, it is a small but significant detail in the way that the press has reported the trial and sentencing deliberations.
But, let me detour for a moment.
Let’s go back to Eichmann and the Shoah.
Let me ask you a question that I first heard from the Israeli educator, Rachel Korazim.
In a session that she once did with a group of my religious school teens, she asked them: “How many Jews died in the Shoah?”
Their answer came quickly, and in unison: “Six million.”
She then pressed them further: “How many of them can you name?”
One kid said: “Anne Frank.” A teacher said: “Hannah Senesh [Szenes, the soldier and poet]. Another said: “Janusz Korczak [the educator and children’s advocate].” Yet another said: “Mordechai Anielewicz [the Warsaw Ghetto fighter].” Another student named his great-aunt.
Rachel then mused aloud: “How is it possible — that eighty years after the Shoah, and with six million victims — we can still only name so few people?”
How, indeed, is that possible? How is it possible — that most Americans can more easily name five top Nazis than five of their Jewish victims?
Now, go to the victims of American antisemitism. How many can you name? (No googling).
The answer — and the only answer — for most American Jews, would be Leo Frank, lynched in Georgia in 1915 and the subject of the current Broadway revival, “Parade.”
Though, in fact, there were at least five others — before Tree of Life. Then, add the killing of Lori Gilbert-Kaye at Chabad in Poway, California in 2019. Add three more in 2019, in the shooting at the Jersey City kosher grocery store, and then, the deadly machete attack on Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg during a Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York.
And yet, what has been true of the press coverage of the Robert Bowers trial?
Almost without fail, every article that I have seen names the victims.
As I shall now do, as well:
- Rose Mallinger, 97
- Bernice Simon, 84, and her husband, Sylvan Simon, 86
- Brothers David Rosenthal, 54, and Cecil Rosenthal, 59
- Dan Stein, 71
- Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
- Joyce Fienberg, 75
- Melvin Wax, 87
- Irving Younger, 69
- Richard Gottfried, 65.
You are surprised by how old they were — the oldest, Mrs. Mallinger, 97; the youngest, the Rosenthal brothers, 54 and 59.
Don’t be. The Pittsburgh Jewish community is an aging community; demographically, one of the oldest in the United States.
Moreover, this happened at a Shabbat morning service in a synagogue that itself hosted several synagogues. That is who is in synagogue on Shabbat mornings, and other times as well — in general, people over the age of sixty years old.
The great Israeli poet, Zelda, wrote these words (as translated by Marcia Falk:
L’kol ish yesh shem
Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents.
Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear…
I took the liberty of citing the first line in Hebrew, that you might hear the repetition of the consonant sound of “sh.” It is a comforting sound, the shushing that you might say to a child who has awoken from a nightmare.
Each of them — each of the victims of that Shabbat morning — had a name.
Is the nightmare over?
I sense that it will never end.
But, in the words of Deuteronomy, justice has been pursued, and justice has been done.
At other times and in other places, I have spoken of the myth of closure. Closure rarely happens.
I do not think that closure will happen in this matter anytime soon.
But as for healing…
May God suture the wounds of that day, and may the survivors, and that holy community, somehow find peace.