PITTSBURGH (JTA) — The gunman who committed the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history is guilty of all charges he faced, according to the verdict delivered by a federal jury on Friday morning.
Robert Bowers, who killed 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, was charged on 63 counts in total. Those include 22 capital charges — two for each of his victims: 11 charges of the federal crime of “obstruction of the free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death,” and 11 charges of the federal crime of “willfully causing bodily injury because of actual or perceived religion resulting in death,” which is a hate crime.
The sentencing phase of the trial will begin next week, during which the jury of seven women and five men will consider whether to give the defendant the death penalty.
The verdict is a milestone in one of the most significant court proceedings in American Jewish history. It provides a a determination of legal accountability in a tragedy that has reshaped American Jews’ sense of security in Pittsburgh and beyond in the nearly five years since it occurred.
The trial opened with jury selection in April, and lawyers delivered their opening statements on May 30, beginning 11 days of harrowing testimony from survivors of the shooting and first responders who described the attack and its aftermath.
On Friday, families of the victims and survivors packed the courtroom and an overflow room where they were able to monitor the proceedings over video. Staff from the 10.27 Healing Partnership, a counseling service housed at the local Jewish Community Center, were on hand to assist them.
The victims of the attack were Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger. They worshipped at three congregations housed in the building at the time: Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light.
The trauma of the shooting was evident when survivors spoke in the courtroom. Andrea Wedner, one of two worshippers who were shot and survived, asked not to be on the stand during the playback of her 911 call. Another shooting victim, Daniel Leger, and the Tree of Life rabbi, Jeffrey Myers, became emotional as each recounted reciting the Shema, the Torah verse and central Jewish prayer that Jews have traditionally recited at times of mortal peril.
The defense team never contested that their client committed the shooting, electing to call no witnesses and present no evidence at the trial. Their sole argument, articulated by Elisa Long in her brief closing statement on Thursday, was to rebut the capital charge that Bowers was guilty of “obstruction of the free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death”. The defense attorneys, headed by a prominent death row lawyer, Judy Clarke, are expected to argue that their suffered from mental illness in their effort to keep him from being sentenced to death.
Long said Bowers was under the delusion that Jews were facilitating the entry of immigrants into the United States to commit genocide, and that his goal was to prevent them from doing so, not to keep Jews from worshipping. But she did not contest the hate crime charge. There is no question, she said, that “his statements that day reflected animosity and hatred toward Jews.”
Prosecutors anticipated that the defense would argue that the gunman did not intent to obstruct worship. Government attorneys concluded each survivors’ testimony with some form of the same question: “Did the defendant prevent you from praying?”
At times, the testimony doubled as a kind of crash course on American Jewish worship, with witnesses explaining the differences between Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism as well as the use of ritual objects, like a prayer shawl or ritual fringes.
Prosecutors used visuals to make the point that the attack interrupted an exercise of religion: prayer books were stained with blood, a kippah was split into two by gunfire. Bernice Simon used a prayer shawl to stanch the wound that killed her husband, Sylvan, before she was killed.
Another theme pervading the proceedings was the political polarization that has beset the United States in recent years. Ahead of the shooting, the gunman posted hateful messages and signaled his intent to commit the attack on Gab, a social media site that is a redoubt of far-right extremists. The site’s founder, Andrew Torba, testified in the trial, as did Mark Hetfield, the CEO of HIAS, the Jewish refugee aid group. The gunman chose to attack the Tree of Life building because Dor Hadash partnered with HIAS on its National Refugee Shabbat the previous week.
The non-death penalty charges the defendant faced are related to the injuries suffered by Wedner and Leger as well as police personnel who engaged with Bowers when they raided the synagogue, in addition to gun charges. The shooter was an avid collector of guns.
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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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