Gunman attacks Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 people

Pittsburgh shooting aftermath
People hold candles as they gather for a vigil in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, on Saturday.
Matt Rourke | AP

Updated: 7 p.m. | Posted: 10:15 a.m.

A gunman who's believed to have spewed anti-Semitic slurs and rhetoric on social media barged into a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday and opened fire, killing 11 people in one of the deadliest attacks on Jews in U.S. history.

The 20-minute attack at Tree of Life Congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood left six others wounded, including four police officers who dashed to the scene, authorities said.

The suspect, Robert Bowers, traded gunfire with police and was shot several times. Bowers, who was in fair condition at a hospital, was expected to face federal hate-crime charges.

"Please know that justice in this case will be swift and it will be severe," Scott Brady, the chief federal prosecutor in western Pennsylvania, said at a late-afternoon news conference, characterizing the slaughter as a "terrible and unspeakable act of hate."

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Pittsburgh shooting aftermath
Police stand guard outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where a shooter opened fire Saturday.
Matt Rourke | AP

Thousands of people gathered for a candlelight vigil in Pittsburgh on Saturday night, to remember the victims and show support for the Jewish community.

The shooting came amid a rash of high-profile attacks in an increasingly divided country, and one day after a Florida man was arrested and charged with mailing a series of pipe bombs to prominent Democrats.

The shooting also immediately reignited the longstanding national debate about guns: President Trump said the outcome might have been different if the synagogue "had some kind of protection" from an armed guard, while Pennsylvania's Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf noted that once again "dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm's way."

Trump said he planned to travel to Pittsburgh, but offered no details.

The shooting began just before 10 a.m. after authorities say Bower entered the large synagogue with an assault-style rifle and three handguns. Three separate Jewish congregations were conducting Sabbath services in different areas of the large building at the time of the attack, according to Michael Eisenberg, the immediate past president of the Tree of Life. The Pennsylvania attorney general's office said it was told by victims that a brit milah — a ritual circumcision ceremony at which a baby boy also receives his Hebrew name — was also taking place, though law enforcement officials later said no children were among the dead or wounded.

Pittsburgh shooting
Police respond to an active shooter situation at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pa., on Saturday.
Pam Panchak | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP

"It is a very horrific crime scene," said a visibly moved Wendell Hissrich, the Pittsburgh public safety director. "It's one of the worst that I've seen."

The mass shooting raised immediate alarm in Jewish communities around the country. Authorities in New York City, Chicago and elsewhere increased security at Jewish centers.

Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said there will be increased patrols at synagogues and congregations in Minnesota.

Hunegs told MPR News on Saturday afternoon that just three weeks ago the council hired its first full-time director of community security.

"It's always a balancing act," he said. "We want all of our synagogues, schools, places of worship, agencies to be secure. And simultaneously we want them to be warm and welcoming. So we've got to always take care along those lines."

Hunegs says the council has important relationships with local law enforcement agencies.

Pittsburgh shooting
People gather on a corner near the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., where a shooter opened fire Saturday.
Gene J. Puskar | AP

"People want to know that they can pray in a secure environment in the Twin Cities," he said. "They can be assured that law enforcement at all levels has been very supportive and very proactive in making sure that communities are safe. There'll be increased patrols and the like.

"And we note that people were murdered in the synagogue and law enforcement came as quickly as they can, and four members of law enforcement were wounded in their brave act of defense. So we're all in this together."

Hunegs that while the attack happened hundreds of miles from Minnesota, it hits close to home in the state's Jewish community.

"Someone called me to say, 'I grew up in that synagogue,' 'I grew up in that neighborhood,' 'I went to college with people from Pittsburgh,' " he said. "The Jewish world is about one-half degree of separation generally — particularly in North America — one person from another. And it's said that all Jews are responsible for one another — so it hits home, very keenly.

"Our hearts, our prayers and our thoughts are with the people of Pittsburgh — both the Jewish community in Pittsburgh and the greater Pittsburgh community."

Pittsburgh shooting
Law enforcement personnel run with a person on a stretcher at the scene where multiple people were shot Saturday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
Alexandra Wimley | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP

Targeted "simply because of their faith"

Bob Jones, head of the FBI's Pittsburgh office, said that worshippers "were brutally murdered by a gunman targeting them simply because of their faith," though he cautioned the shooter's full motive was not yet known. In a statement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Justice Department would file hate crime and other charges against Bowers.

Bowers, who had no apparent criminal record, expressed virulently anti-Semitic views on a social media site called Gab, according to an Associated Press review of an archived version of the posts made under his name. The cover photo for his account featured a neo-Nazi symbol, and his recent posts included a photo of a fiery oven like those used in Nazi concentration camps used to cremate Jews during World War II. Other posts referenced false conspiracy theories suggesting the Holocaust — in which an estimated 6 million Jews perished — was a hoax. He also wrote of a Jewish "infestation," using a slur for Jews.

Gab confirmed the alleged shooter had a profile on its website, which is popular with far-right extremists.

Before the shooting, the poster believed to be Bowers also wrote that "HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in."

HIAS is a nonprofit group that helps refugees around the world find safety and freedom. The organization says it is guided by Jewish values and history.

Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League, said the group believes Saturday's attack was the deadliest on the Jewish community in U.S. history.

Pittsburgh shooting
Law enforcement officers secure the scene where multiple people were shot Saturday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
Alexandra Wimley | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP

"Our hearts break for the families of those killed and injured at the Tree of Life Synagogue, and for the entire Jewish community of Pittsburgh," Greenblatt said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was "heartbroken and appalled" by the attack.

"The entire people of Israel grieve with the families of the dead," Netanyahu said. "We stand together with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh. We stand together with the American people in the face of this horrendous anti-Semitic brutality. And we all pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded."

Vigil for the victims

Thousands of people, many holding candles, gathered for a street vigil in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Saturday night in honor of the victims, whose names were not immediately released.

A "vote, vote, vote" chant broke out during the emotional gathering where some derided the nation's political climate. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf attended the vigil, suspending a campaign bus trip after learning of the attack.

Pittsburgh shooting aftermath
A large crowd gathers at the intersection of Murray Avenue and Forbes Avenue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, for a memorial service for the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday.
Gene J. Puskar | AP

State Rep. Dan Frankel, who represents the district that includes the synagogue, was speaking at a house party about a block away when the shooting occurred. The Democrat said other attendees heard the gunfire.

"We'll be dealing with this for months and years," Frankel said. "It leaves an indelible mark."

Frankel called the area the heart of Pittsburgh's Jewish community, estimating about 20 synagogues are located with a couple miles of the vigil site.

Reaction from the president

Trump called the shooting a "wicked act of mass murder" that "is pure evil, hard to believe and frankly something that is unimaginable."

Trump has at times been accused by critics of failing to adequately condemn hate, such as when he blamed "both sides" for the violence at a Charlottesville white supremacist rally.

On Saturday, he said anti-Semitism "must be confronted anywhere and everywhere it appears."

The synagogue is located in the tree-lined residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh and the hub of Pittsburgh's Jewish community. The facade of the fortress-like concrete building is punctuated by rows of swirling, modernistic stained-glass windows illustrating the story of creation, the acceptance of God's law, the "life cycle" and "how human-beings should care for the earth and one another," according to its website. Among its treasures is a "Holocaust Torah," rescued from Czechoslovakia.

Its sanctuary can hold up to 1,250 people.

Michael Eisenberg, the immediate past president of the Tree of Life Synagogue, lives about a block from the building. He said officials at Tree of Life had not gotten any threats that he knew of before the shooting. But he said security was a concern, and the synagogue had started working to improve it.

Chuck Diamond, a former rabbi at the synagogue who retired more than a year ago, said the building is locked during the week, and is outfitted with security cameras. "But on Sabbath it's an open door," he said.

"You know, you're always worried that something would happen," said Myron Snider, head of the cemetery committee for New Light Congregation, which meets at Tree of Life. Snider just got out of the hospital on Thursday and missed Saturday's service.

"But you never dream that it would happen like this," Snider added. "Just never ever dream that it would happen like this."

Jeff Finkelstein of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh said local synagogues have done "lots of training on things like active shooters, and we've looked at hardening facilities as much as possible."

"This should not be happening, period," he told reporters at the scene. "This should not be happening in a synagogue."

MPR News weekend editor Andrew Krueger contributed to this report.