Recovering from the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history

A gunman killed 11 people in last year's Tree of Life shooting. Lesley Stahl reports on how Pittsburgh citizens of all faiths helped in the recovery

Recovery after the Tree of Life shooting

Tomorrow, the Anti-Defamation League will release new figures indicating that the number of incidents against Jews and Jewish targets in the United States reached 780 in just the first half of this year. At least a dozen white supremacists have been arrested for such shootings, plots and threats since the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history a year ago, at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

As acts of hate are on the rise, churches and mosques as well as synagogues have been targets. What we discovered is that these religious communities have formed a bond, coming together to help each other recover. That's what's happened at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, called Tree of Life, which is actually home to three congregations, so three totally separate synagogues under one roof. In the past year each has searched for its own antidote to hate.

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Tree of Life is the largest of the three congregations in the building. Its rabbi, Jeffrey Myers, says they've barely begun making sense of the storm that upended their lives and emptied this sanctuary.  

Lesley Stahl: So Rabbi, how long has it been since you were able to have a service in here?

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers: The last time we were in here was September, 2018.

Lesley Stahl: Because right across the hallway is still a crime scene?

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers: Yes

The crime took place at 9:50 Saturday morning, October 27. All three congregations were gathering for Sabbath services, when a white supremacist wielding an AR-15 entered the building and started shooting. Andrea Wedner and her 97-year-old mother, Rose Mallinger, heard him approach. 
 
Lesley Stahl: Did you know it was a gunshot right away?

Andrea Wedner: Yes, I did

Lesley Stahl: Right away?

Andrea Wedner: Yes. 

Lesley Stahl: So what did you do?

Andrea Wedner: (SIGH) My mother and I looked at each other, and I said, "We have to get down." I said, "Just get down." But before we could, we got shot.

Lesley Stahl: But did you have a sense of panic, a sense of--

Andrea Wedner: I had a sense of survival. I wanted to live. 

The first 911 call was made four minutes into the rampage.

Andrea Wedner: I got hit and I looked at my arm and saw that it was blown open. And I just went down on the floor. I just laid there and played dead.

Lesley Stahl: Because he was still roaming around?

Andrea Wedner: Yeah, he was still roaming around.

Lesley Stahl: And there were other people who were around you who did not survive, including your mother.

Andrea Wedner: Yes.

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SOUNDBITE FROM POLICE RADIO: Multiple shots are heard. The suspect keeps telling about killing Jews. He doesn't want any of them to live.

Members of the second congregation in the building, Dor Hadash, were on another floor when they heard the shooting. Dan Leger, a nurse, and his good friend, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, wanted to help, so they headed toward the gunfire. Jerry was killed; Dan critically injured.

Lesley Stahl: You lost a lotta blood. 

Dan Leger: I lost a lotta blood.

Lesley Stahl: You were shot in the stomach? 

Dan Leger: Yeah. I felt like I was dying, which I was. You know, it's hard to talk about. Why couldn't I have said to Jerry, "Let's hide under this table, or hide in that closet," rather than go out there and see if we can help?

Lesley Stahl: I heard that you literally couldn't speak after the shooting.

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman: Well, you know, I was in shock.

Jonathan Perlman is the rabbi of New Light, the third congregation in the building. 

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman: Fortunately, I knew about this space in the back of our room. And I said, "Keep the lights out. Find a place to hide." The shooter he didn't see us. He went right by us.

It took the shooter less than 11 minutes to kill 11 men and women from all three congregations. Killed for being Jewish. 

Lesley Stahl: Did you ever think in your whole life that you would see the return of anti-Semitism in this virulent form?

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman: Not in Pittsburgh.

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Within hours of the shooting, the people of Pittsburgh started leaving notes of support. The pile grew with Stars of David and painted stones, but also crosses and rosary beads. 

Laurie Zitrain-Eisenberg: A lot of the items are religious reflecting the faith of the person who was leaving it, and not necessarily the faith of the victims.

Laurie Zitrain-Eisenberg, a congregant and historian, is cataloguing these gifts.

Laurie Zitrain-Eisenberg: Clearly, this was a Jewish event in that it's an anti-Semitic attack in a synagogue. But other people weren't seeing this as a Jewish event.

Lesley Stahl: Well, you've all become part of a club that no one wants to join of Houses of Worship that have come under attack: Muslims, Jews, Christians.

Laurie Zitrain-Eisenberg: And all of a sudden we're actually in contact with them.  

Tree of Life shooting survivors thank Pittsburgh first responders

Parishioners from Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, where another white supremacist killed nine African Americans in 2015, came to Pittsburgh and comforted survivors. We asked Miri, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz's widow about that; as well as Sharyn Stein, whose husband, Dan, was also killed that day; and Dan Leger and his wife, Ellen. 

Dan Leger: You know at Mother Emanuel Church, the person who killed, what was it, nine people, sat in Bible study with them for an hour and then he pulled out his gun and shot them.

Lesley Stahl: And then they forgave him. Do you think about that?

Sharyn Stein: I think about it a lot, and I have not gotten to the point where I have that forgiveness. I mean, it's going to be a long time.
 
Lesley Stahl: And Dan?

Dan Leger: I forgive this man for what he did to me. He made a terrible decision. He made a horrible decision. But I can't forgive him for killing 11 people, because those people are dead, and they're the only people that can forgive him.

Miri Rabinowitz: And knowing Jerry, he also would forgive the shooter. Not-- and I'm not quite there yet.

Lesley Stahl: But he would have.

Miri Rabinowitz: Oh yeah.

Miri told us life is still a daily struggle. 

Miri Rabinowitz: I mean I am devastated that he's gone. 

Lesley Stahl: How important is, now, your faith? Given what's happened?

Miri Rabinowitz: Lesley, that's hard because I've always had my faith so I can't imagine not. It hasn't impacted my belief in God and godliness and goodness in the world.

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The 11 people who died in the Tree of Life shooting

She saw goodness in how their city reacted. Stickers and signs popped up all over, as the attack on the synagogue was treated as an attack on all the people of Pittsburgh. 

At a vigil the night after the massacre, worshippers of all faiths came together for the Jewish prayer for the dead. 

Laurie Zitrain-Eisenberg: And they were able to put like 30 different faith leaders from all different religions on the stage. And I was thinking to myself: Please let there be an imam, please let there by an imam. And then Wasi Mohamed was there.  

Wasi Mohamed at Vigil: Since yesterday afternoon, we've been able to raise over $70,000 for the community. 

Wasi Mohamed was the lay leader of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. 

Wasi Mohamed at Vigil: We just want to know what you need. If it's people outside your next service, you know, protecting you - let us know we will be there. If you just need someone to come to the grocery store because you don't feel safe in the city, we'll be there and I'm sure everybody in the room would say the same thing.  

Lesley Stahl: Why did you feel you had to do something?

Wasi Mohamed: There's a feeling of powerlessness when it happens, when something like this happens in your city. We understand this more so than a lot of communities do unfortunately. We can understand this pain and the fear of lack of security.

Lesley Stahl: Yeah but we're Americans. We shouldn't have to secure our churches and our mosques and our synagogues. I mean, they should be open--

Wasi Mohamed: Yeah… I think there's different histories in America, right? Black churches have never been safe. You know, mosques have never been safe in this country. Synagogues have always been targets. Like, this is not new. It's been used as a fear tactic against our communities for generations since this country was founded. "If you're not safe in this sanctuary, you're just not safe here, leave."

Lesley Stahl: I heard that more recently when the shooting took place at the mosque in New Zealand, that the Jewish community here came over to sort of guard and protect your mosque.

Wasi Mohamed: Yeah. When the tragedy happened, we immediately received an outpouring of support from the Jewish community. We've had Jewish community members outside the Islamic center holding signs, saying that they love us, they welcome us.

Lesley Stahl: Now that has to make you feel good.

Wasi Mohamed: Absolutely.  It's special!

The sense of unity in Pittsburgh was interrupted three days after the shooting when President Trump and Mrs. Trump came to town. 

He was hosted by Rabbi Myers, despite strong opposition from many congregants, who argued that the president's anti-immigration language provoked the shooter, who specifically singled out this synagogue for its work helping migrants and refugees. Ellen Surloff was one of those opposed. 
 
Ellen Surloff: I believe there's a direct link between the president's words and actions, his failure to forcefully denounce the rhetoric of the white supremacists and what happened on October 27. Yes, the death of 11 people.

Lesley Stahl: There was a lot of opposition--

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers: Uh-huh. But I'm the rabbi for the Republicans and the Democrats in my congregation, and the independents. So, to me, this is above politics. 

What's become evident is that while the three congregations share a building, they don't necessarily share the same politics or same opinion on how houses of worship should respond to a trauma like this. 

Rabbi Myers has launched a national anti-hate speech campaign. Ellen Surloff, Donna Coufal, and Eve Wider, members of the more activist congregation Dor Hadash, are advocating for stricter gun laws. 

Lesley Stahl: But what's more important in your mind, the idea that you have to go for gun control or do something about hate speech? 

Eve Wider: I mean, I think what I would say to that is we can solve the access to guns, that is something we can change in our society. Ending hate speech is a lot more complicated and is very hard to get at.

The third congregation in the building shies away from such a public role. 

Stephen Cohen: We're not a political congregation. 

Stephen Cohen is co-president of New Light, here with Rabbi Jonathan Perlman and his wife Beth Kissileff. 

Stephen Cohen:  We have members who believe one thing, and we have other members who believe the exact opposite. If as an individual they would wish to speak up and talk, as an individual, that is their right as an American citizen.

Lesley Stahl: Sure.

Stephen Cohen: But as a congregation, none of that's what's going on in terms of immigration, or Trump's tweets have anything to do with our religious beliefs or us as Jews.

Lesley Stahl: But I've spoken to congregants, and they are out there fighting for gun control.

Stephen Cohen: God bless 'em. It may be an important issue, maybe. Okay. I think there are more important issues in the world. But is this something that we want to be involved with in a public way? What does it have to do with Judaism? What does it have to do with praying to God? Nothing. 

Ellen Surloff: The concept of not being socially active, in my mind, is the opposite of everything we're taught in our religion. And the point I wanted to make is to take it back to the Holocaust. If we learned nothing else from that it's that you can't be silent, you can't be a bystander. So there is no time when the kind of hatred and vitriol is being spewed out by white supremacists. There is no time when guns continue to result in mass shootings, there's no time not to speak out. We learned that.

Before the attack, the Jewish community of Pittsburgh thought, "It couldn't happen here." Now they're talking about barricading their synagogues.

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman: What were we thinking? We thought we're so safe in America? Every single synagogue in Europe has an armed guard.

Lesley Stahl: Now are saying every single Synagogue in the United States should have an armed guard?

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman: Yes.

Stephen Cohen: Yes

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman: I mean, the tragedy is that it shouldn't be an act of courage to enter a house of worship.

Produced by Shachar Bar-On. Associate producer, Kate Morris.

  • Lesley Stahl
    Lesley Stahl

    One of America's most recognized and experienced broadcast journalists, Lesley Stahl has been a 60 Minutes correspondent since 1991.