The first burials of the 11 victims from the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting took place Tuesday as President Trump and First Lady, Melania, headed to the city to “express the support of the American people and to grieve with the Pittsburgh community,” the White House said. At a GOP rally, Vice President Mike Pence called upon a rabbi to invoke a prayer for the victims but his good intentions misfired due to an interfaith faux pas.
Some have turned the tragedy into a partisan political issue but on Monday, it became the focus of religious consternation. Vice President Mike Pence was at a rally on Monday for Republicans in Oakland County, Michigan, when he invited a rabbi to the stage to say a prayer for the victims. The rabbi was Loren Jacobs of the Messianic congregation Shema Yisrael. In what was considered by many to be an egregious lack of respect for the victims, Jacobs invoked the name of “Jesus the Messiah.”
“God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God and Father of my Lord and Savior Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah, and my God and Father too,” Jacobs said.
A Pence aide told Associated Press that Jacobs was invited to pray at the event by GOP congressional candidate Lena Epstein. The aide claimed Pence did not know who Jacobs was when he invited him back onstage to offer another a prayer for the victims.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, the rabbi of the Tree of Life Synagogue who was in the building at the time of the shooting, praised the president for his decision to visit the community in the wake of the tragedy.
“The community would welcome his presence here because he is our president,” Myers told Hadashot Television. “This has nothing to do with politics in America. This is hate.”
In a separate interview, Myers told Associated Press, “We turn to the leaders of our country. We’ve got to stop hate and it can’t just be to say we need to stop hate. We need to do, we need to act, to tone down rhetoric. Hate is not welcome here in Pittsburgh. It should not be welcome in our borders at all.”
The shooter, Robert Bowers, appeared in a federal court on Monday. Injured in the ensuing shootout with police, Bowers was released from the hospital in the morning and subsequently appeared in court in a wheelchair. He accepted a court-appointed defending counsel.
Bowers was charged with 11 state counts of criminal homicide, six counts of aggravated assault and 13 counts of ethnic intimidation. He was also charged in a 29-count federal criminal complaint that included counts of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death, considered a federal hate crime, and using a firearm to commit murder.
U.S. Attorney Scott Brady announced on Sunday that Federal prosecutors intend to pursue the death penalty against Bowers.
Bowers did not enter a plea and was ordered held without bail for a court date Thursday.
Bowers, a truck driver, woke up early on Saturday to make several posts on Gab, a social media platform similar to Twitter but one in which there is no censorship. This has led to allegations that it is simply a repository for pro-far right views. Shortly before the shooting, he vilified the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the Jewish refugee aid group, for its work resettling Middle Eastern refugees in the United States.
“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” he wrote on his website. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
At 9:50, five minutes after the prayer service began, Bowers allegedly entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill suburb of Pittsburgh, approximately a half hour drive from his one bedroom apartment. He immediately opened fire with an AR-15 rifle, killing three people in the first few minutes. He also brought with him three handguns. Four minutes later the first calls came into 911.
Several people managed to flee the building. Four sought refuge in a dark storage closet. One man stepped out and was shot and killed. Bowers entered the closet but was unable to find the three people in the dark and left without shooting.
The gunman went upstairs where he killed seven others and wounded several more.
At 10:00 the first police arrive and come under fire from the entrance. Bowers then goes up to the third floor where he barricaded himself in the building.
The SWAT team arrived at 10:12 and set up a perimeter, escorting the remaining people out of the building. At 10:47 SWAT engaged the gunman, wounding him. One SWAT officer was critically injured. By 11:03, Bowers began speaking with the police and identified himself. Five minutes later, Bowers crawled out of the building and surrendered.
The victims were Daniel Stein, 71; Joyce Feinberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Rose Mallinger, 97; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal 54; husband and wife Bernice Simon, 84 and Sylvan Simon, 86; Melvin Wax, 88; and Irving Younger, 69.
SIx others, including four police officers, were wounded.