PITTSBURGH (JTA) — Testifying at the trial of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, Carol Black described how, right before he opened fire, she had taken her yarmulke and tallis out of her velvet tallis bag.
But first, she had to explain what a yarmulke, tallis and tallis bag were.
“In my briefcase is a blue velvet bag that has a zipper on it,” she said. “I have a Ziploc bag of yarmulkes I would wear and a tallis I would wear.” A yarmulke was a “head covering,” she explained, and a tallis was a “prayer shawl.” The items, she said, “just signified being in the presence of God and being respectful.”
Black, 71, was the second witness to testify on Wednesday, the second day of the capital murder trial of the alleged gunman, Robert Bowers. She was one of a few witnesses who interspersed heart-rending testimony about the trial with, effectively, a crash course on Jewish ritual.
Black recalled how she sat in the second seat in from the aisle, because the aisle seat was where her brother Richard Gottfried sat, and they shared gabbai duties. Then Black explained the role of a “gabbai” — calling congregants to the Torah and helping them read through a passage. She described Pesukei d’Zimra, the morning service’s opening prayers, and spelled out the Hebrew name of the morning service, Shacharit, for the court reporter.
“I had just started to open the bag and I heard a loud bang,” she said. “To me it sounded like somebody had dropped a table on the metal floor.”
She added, “The first two sounds, I didn’t recognize them as gunfire. You don’t go to a synagogue and expect to hear gunfire.”
The focus of the trial is the gunfire — the shooting on Oct. 27, 2018 that killed 11 Jews praying at three congregations: Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash. But for the prosecution, explaining the synagogue — and the practices that take place in it — is also proving to be crucial. The painful collision on that Shabbat morning of the sacred and the profane is key to the prosecution’s case that the defendant merits the death penalty.
Of the 63 federal charges Bowers is facing, 22 are capital crimes: two for each of the 11 fatalities that morning, including Black’s brother, Richard Gottfried. One is “obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death” and the other is murder, enhanced with a hate crime charge. So prosecutors, seeking to show that the shooting was motivated by antisemitism, are probing witnesses about their Judaism and how they express it.
“As they did every Saturday, men and women of the Jewish faith made their way to the synagogue, to observe Shabbat,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo Song said in her opening statement on Tuesday. “To pray to God in the sanctity and refuge of their shared Jewish faith.”
Conversely, defense lawyer Judy Clarke is out to prove that her client targeted the congregants not because of their religion per se but because of a delusion that they were facilitating an immigration invasion to replace whites. Both she and prosecutors have said in court that he committed the attack.
Clarke occasionally objected when the testimony veered into how American Jews worship, or into explaining what animates Jewish practice. None of her objections to explaining Judaism were sustained — including one where she had tried to preempt the director of one of the congregations’ religious schools from explaining its educational precepts.
Describing the curriculum, Wendy Kobee, the director of the religious school of Dor Hadash, a Reconstructionist congregation, said, “Religious prayers, religious practices, cultural values.”
“Among the cultural values taught at the school was the concept of welcoming the stranger?” prosecutor Mary Hahn asked.
“Yes, that would have been incorporated into the curriculum in an age-appropriate way,” Kobee said.
Both the defense and prosecution acknowledge that the defendant, a white supremacist, targeted the building because Dor Hadash had partnered with HIAS, the Jewish refugee aid group, to celebrate what the group called National Refugee Shabbat.
The trial is shaping up as a seminar on American Jewish tradition. Witnesses have provided the judge, jury and spectators with an impromptu glossary of Jewish terms, and an introduction to parts of modern Jewish thought. Dan Leger, a member of Dor Hadash who was injured in the attack, outlined the teachings of the Reconstructionist movement’s founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan.
Kaplan’s “approach is one of looking at the Bible, the Torah specifically as something that guides our life in ways that give value in social interaction,” Leger said. “One of the ways it is most highly demonstrated is welcoming those into the community who need assistance, who need support whether or not they are Jewish, welcoming immigrants into the country.”
Prosecutors also asked witnesses about Jewish practice in order to explain what happened on the day of the shooting. Song asked Leger to explain tallit katan, the small prayer shawl colloquially known as tzitzit that observant men traditionally wear under their clothing, and why he did not have a cell phone handy when the gunman opened fire. It was Shabbat, when some Jews abstain from using electronic devices, he explained.)
Another prosecutor asked Barry Werber, who testified later, why he preferred to attend services at New Light on Friday night and for Sunday breakfasts and not on Saturdays. He liked to sleep in on Saturdays, he said, but he went to services on the morning of the shooting because he felt obliged to honor his mother on her yahrzeit. He explained that a yahrzeit was “the anniversary of someone’s death.”
Like Tree of Life’s rabbi, Jeffrey Myers, had on Tuesday, Leger testified that he recited the Shema when he believed he was dying, after the gunman shot him in the abdomen. He translated the Torah verse and central Jewish prayer for the jury. Leger, a retired registered nurse, and another Dor Hadash congregant, Jerry Rabinowitz, a physician, had run into the shooting to help the injured. Rabinowitz was killed.
“I thought about the wonder of my life, the beauty of it all, the happiness I had experienced, the joy of having two beautiful sons and a wonderful wife and the wife previous to that wife, all the wonderful friends I have in the world,” Leger said. “I prayed for forgiveness for those who I have wronged in my life. I was ready to go.”
The defendant, wearing a dark blue sweater and a light blue collared shirt, his arms folded, stared at Leger.
The stories on the witness stand offered windows into American Jewish families and history. Gottfried started attending New Light after his mother died in 1992, Black testified about her brother, but she said she remained uninterested in frequent synagogue attendance until she injured a hip running about a decade ago. Gottfried, who was younger, encouraged her to come to services, and she celebrated her bat mitzvah as an adult.
“In Uniontown [Pennsylvania] where I grew up, in our Conservative congregation, which incidentally was called Tree of Life, girls did not get bat mitzvahed,” she said.
Black and Werber both discussed the social aspect of Shabbat services, describing the propensity of Melvin Wax, a New Light congregant, to tell jokes. Werber recalled that just before the shooting, Wax was telling jokes to Cecil Rosenthal.
Yet along with descriptions of how ritual and prayer bound the synagogue communities together, the testimonies all came back to the horrific details of the shooting itself.
After sitting with Wax, Werber said, Rosenthal went back upstairs, where the gunman shot him multiple times. Down in the New Light sanctuary, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman led Werber, Wax and Black into a storeroom behind the bimah. Richard Gottfried was in an adjacent kitchen with another New Light congregant, Dan Stein, preparing breakfast for the next morning. He called 911.
The gunman came down the stairs and killed Gottfried and Stein. There was a pause, so Wax peeked out of the storeroom to see what was happening. The gunman shot him twice, and he fell at Black’s feet. The gunman hovered a while in the area and then retreated.
Eventually, emergency responders found the group hidden in the store room. Wax’s body still lay there.
“I had to step over him to get past him,” Black testified, her voice cracking. “Quietly to myself I said goodbye to him and followed the officers.”
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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