PITTSBURGH (JTA) — When Shannon Basa-Sabol was asked to recount the events of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in court on Tuesday, what stood out was her memory of the death of Bernice Simon.
Basa-Sabol, a 911 dispatcher, took the stand for close to an hour, describing the ins and outs of her job.
But when the crowded courtroom heard a recording of Simon’s 911 call from the Tree of Life Congregation, Basa-Sabol paused and began to sniffle. She described telling Simon to stay quiet, then hearing multiple gunshots over the phone.
“Are you still with me?” Basa-Sabol said on the recording of the call. “Bernice, can you hear me?”
Speaking on the witness stand on Tuesday, Basa-Sabol said she had realized Simon no longer had “sufficient breathing for life.”
“I was hearing her being shot,” she said.
Basa-Sabol was the first witness in the trial of Robert Bowers, the man accused of murdering 11 Jews in their Pittsburgh synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018. For months, survivors, relatives of victims and the Jewish community of Pittsburgh have anticipated the trial, which began Tuesday, hoping for closure while worrying that the proceedings would retraumatize people, even as no one doubted the culpability of the accused.
As the prosecution and defense gave their opening statements, it was clear that the trial would air graphic details from the attack. But while lawyers and witnesses recounted the events of the day, the courthouse was also the scene of embraces, tears of comfort, discussions of Jewish tradition and even laughter as those who lived through the tragedy connected with and supported one another.
Defendants’ families were in the courtroom and monitoring via videolink elsewhere in the Joseph Weis Federal Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh. Social workers and psychologists were on hand to help them through the proceedings. Reporters were asked not to conduct interviews in the building.
At a break, Tim Matson, a policeman injured in an exchange of fire with the suspect, sought out Andrea Wedner, who was shot and whose mother, Rose Mallinger, was killed. They hugged.
Maggie Feinstein, the director of the 10/27 Healing Partnership, which provides post-traumatic therapy for the community, watched closely over the nine or so family members in the courtroom, and handed them tissues.
“Today marked the beginning of a very difficult and painful trial that is the direct result of an incredibly terrible action by one person,” Feinstein wrote in an email after the court was adjourned. “It represented an important step in the process of justice, because these court proceedings are a way for our society to take up the burden of remembering and telling the truth about what happened on October 27, 2018.”
On the witness stand, Jeffrey Myers, the rabbi of Tree of Life Congregation, cried as he described how he recited the Shema, thinking he was about to die.
“I thought about the history of my people, how we’ve been persecuted and hunted and slaughtered for centuries,” he said. “And about how all of them must have felt in the moments before their death, and what they did was recite Deuteronomy, chapter 6, verse 4, ‘Hear, O, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
The defendant is accused of murdering 11 people and wounding six at three congregations that met in the same building — Tree of Life, Or L’Simcha and Dor Hadash. He faces 63 charges, 22 of which are death penalty charges that relate specifically to allegations that he targeted Jews: 11 counts of obstruction in free exercise of religious belief resulting in death, and 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death. Prosecutors previously rejected a guilty plea so that they could pursue the death penalty — a punishment that families of victims and congregational leaders have debated.
Jury selection began last month and took three weeks, culminating in the selection of 18 jurors and alternates — 11 men and seven women.
In their opening statements, prosecutors and defense lawyers alike warned that the trial would revisit the attack in horrific detail. Judge Robert Colville emphasized the presumption of innocence, telling the jury that Bowers had a “clean slate” unless the prosecution was able to persuade them otherwise.
He warned jurors to avoid reading about the case in the media, and not to discuss it with friends or even with each other. And he added what he acknowledged was a recent and novel caution: “Persons, entities or even foreign governments may seek to manipulate your opinions,” instructing them not to click through if they saw messages relating to the trial pooping up on their computer.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Song Soo’s 31-minute statement, delivered in a steady tone that only occasionally fluttered with emotion, set forth her case in vivid terms: A community that had come together for decades in love and caring for each other, and for Jewish tradition, was shattered by a gunman determined to murder Jews.
“In the Tree of Life synagogue, the words ‘Tree of Life’ are written in Hebrew high above the bookstand that holds the Torah, the holiest book in the Jewish faith,” she said. “The Tree of Life synagogue had anchored the corner of Wilkins and Shady for decades. As they did every Saturday men and women of the Jewish faith made their way to the synagogue to observe Shabbat.”
She noted that the Torah portion that week, Vayera, “was from the Book of Genesis and was about welcoming strangers.” She went on to describe the warmth of those who were killed and dwelled on Cecil and David Rosenthal, men in their 50s with developmental disabilities who loved to greet congregants.
“In many ways, they were like children, childlike because of their mental disabilities, trusting and pure,” Soo said, adding that fellow congregants would help them “tie a shoe lace, tuck in a shirt, find a page in a prayer book.”
“That morning David Rosenthal stood at the front of the chapel helping to lead the opening prayer” he had memorized, she said. “His devotion to the faith made up for the fact that he could not actually read the prayer book.”
Then, she described the carnage, referring to the defendant’s alleged statements of hate on Gab, a social media platform friendly to right-wing extremists. He allegedly condemned HIAS, the Jewish refugee aid group that partnered with Dor Hadash.
“That same morning the defendant was making his own preparations to destroy, to kill and defile,” Soo said. “He hated Jews, he called them ‘the children of Satan … the most bloodthirsty, evil demons who ever walked the face of the earth.’”
She read out the Gab entry Bowers allegedly posted while he was parked outside the synagogue complex. “HIAS likes to bring in invaders that like to kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch our people get slaughtered, screw your optics, I’m going in.”
“And the defendant did go in,” Soo said. She described some of the congregants’ deaths in detail, and concluded by reading out the 11 names of the murdered: Cecil and David Rosenthal, couple Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Rose Malinger, Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Jerry Rabinowitz, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger.
The defendant, clad in a green sweater over an open-collared light blue shirt, stared ahead and scribbled notes. He never looked at Soo, who spoke at a podium to his right.
In her opening statement, Bowers’ lead attorney, Judy Clarke, said the defense would not contest the events, or Bowers’ responsibility for them. Clarke is known as “the attorney for the damned” for her determination to keep her clients from execution. She has defended the Unabomber, the Boston Marathon bomber and one of the conspirators who planned the 9/11 attacks.
“This senseless act, the loss and devastation, were caused by Robert Bowers,” she said. “There is no disagreement, there is no dispute and there will be no doubt as to who shot the 11 congregants. On Oct. 27, 2018, Robert Bowers, the man seated at that table, loaded with ammunition and firearms entered the synagogue.”
Clarke suggested that her defense would focus on whether the defendant’s motives met the standards required by the government’s charges, particularly regarding the 22 death penalty charges.
“We can at least do our best to uphold the rule of law by figuring out, to the best of our ability, what were Mr. Bowers’ motives and intent,” she said. She argued that her client’s statements, which focused on his deluded belief that Jews were intent on replacing white people, do not make clear that his intent met the standards enshrined in federal law.
“These statements are outrageous,” she said. “The fact that they were made raises more questions than they may answer.”
Carol Janssen, another employee from a 911 call center, testified, and in the afternoon, for a number of hours, Eric Olshan, a Jewish U.S. Attorney, asked Myers to guide the jurors through a tour of a physical scale model of the synagogue that was brought into the courtroom. Myers described the building, its congregations and the fundamentals of Judaism to an attentive jury.
Shabbat ends “when three stars are in the sky,” said Myers, who wore a black suit and white kippah and delivered his testimony in measured tones. He wore a kippah because “it reminds me that I’m in God’s presence wherever I go.”
Myers occasionally smiled at the jury when he cracked a joke, eliciting laughter, as when he recalled what a SWAT team advised him when they reached him in the synagogue: “Rabbi, run your ass off.”
And, as the defendant stared at him, Myers memorialized his murdered congregants, affectionately recalling their self-appointed roles during Sabbath services. He remembered one of the victims, Cecil Rosenthal, who always beat him to the synagogue so he could be in place to greet all comers. “I would say to him jokingly, ‘Cecil did you sleep here again?’”
David Rosenthal, he said, sang prayers “loudly,” while Rose Mallinger routinely led the prayer for peace, “that all people can live together in freedom and peace.”
As he recalled the moments of the shooting, Myers said, he felt he would not be angry at God, “because it was not God who did this. I was prepared to meet my fate.” He sobbed.
The scheduled Torah reading from Genesis 12, he said, narrates how Abraham welcomes three strangers.
“I was going to talk about the Jewish imperative to welcome all guests whoever they may be,” he said. “But I never gave that sermon.”
The defense declined to cross-examine the rabbi.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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