The Tree of Life murders and trial, part II: Kaddish

By Bill Simons 

On Friday, November 2, 2018, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette featured a large, bold-font page-one headline above its lead story that was unprecedented for a major American metropolitan newspaper. Its typeface size and placement above the fold might have announced a declaration of war, presidential election results or World Series triumph. Instead, in Hebrew script, the headline contained the four words that commence the Mourner’s Kaddish. As the Post-Gazette explained, “These are the first words of the Jewish mourners’ prayer, ‘Magnified and sanctified be Your name,’ to be recited tonight on the first Sabbath since the tragedy at Tree of Life.” 

Post-Gazette Executive Editor David Shribman asserted, “When you conclude there are no words to express a community’s feelings, then maybe you are thinking in the wrong language. That’s what prompted me to consider whether an excerpt from a 10th century prayer might be the appropriate gesture – of respect, of condolence – for a 21st century audience mourning its dead, whether family, friend, congregant, neighbor or, simply, Pittsburgher.” Shribman, a Jew, Pulitzer Prize recipient and resident of Tree of Life’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, made the decision to headline the opening of the Kaddish without consulting his publisher. That initiative appears to have hastened the departure of an unrepentant Shribman from the Post-Gazette. 

Statistics alone are insufficient for conveying the devastation wrought by hate-fueled murder. Without examining the lives and deaths of specific individuals, it is difficult to comprehend the tragedy of the six million Jews exterminated during the Holocaust. Kaddish for the victims of the Shoah demands more than statistical enumeration. The immense impact of the autobiographical “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” derives its power by putting a specific face on the victims of Nazi genocide. Like the others who perished in the Shoah, Anne possessed aspirations, apprehensions and attributes that made her life distinctive and her death heart-rending. That is also true of Jews slaughtered while they prayed in their Tree of Life sanctuary precisely because they were Jews. 

All lives are unique, all have value. Those who celebrated the Sabbath at Tree of Life merit honor for preserving Jewish tradition by their observance. They ought not to be defined solely by the savage manner of their deaths. Remember their lives, continue their legacy, say their names  – Rose Mallinger, Melvin Wax, Sylvan Simon, Bernice Simon, Joyce Fienberg, Daniel Stein, Irving Younger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Richard Gottfried, Cecil Rosenthal and David Rosenthal.

Mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, Rose Mallinger, the oldest of the Tree of Life victims at 97, linked generations of Jewish life. Possessed of a vivacity, warmth and wit that age had not muted, Mallinger loved people, particularly her family. Former secretary of the synagogue’s religious school, she was a fixture at Tree of Life over the decades. And she loved to talk, still holding conversational court on her front porch. To perpetuate her spirit, Mallinger’s family planted a rose garden and built a patio at the neighborhood Jewish Community Center, where she formerly exercised, noshed and kibbitzed. Mallinger and her daughter, Andrea Wedner, attended Sabbath services together on October 27, 2018, as they customarily did. Suffering two serious arms wounds from a semi-automatic rifle, Wedner yelled “Mommy” before realizing that the assault had killed her beloved mother huddled beside her under a pew. 

Other large souls perished in the Tree of Life carnage. Sixty-two years before, Sylvan, 86, and Bernice Simon, 84, married in the very room in which they were murdered. Together, Bernice, a nurse, and Sylvan, an accountant, raised four children. A mourner remembered the couple’s “generosity” and “warm beautiful smiles.” The mother of two sons, Joyce Fienberg, 75 – noted for her care, dedication and energy – assisted students and colleagues during a quarter of a century as a University of Pittsburgh staff specialist in learning research and development. On Sunday, July 30, 2023, a large procession marked the dedication of a Torah in her memory and that of her late husband, Stephen Fienberg. 

Warm and gregarious, Irving Younger, 69, regarded each day as a gift. A retired realtor and youth baseball coach, Younger was a loving father and grandfather. Brothers Cecil, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54, cognitively limited by genetics, but with special abilities to give and receive friendship, fell on October 27. David would stop by Fire Station 18 on Northumberland Street to schmooze and help with the Saturday cleanup; Pittsburgh’s bravest attended the shiva to say good-bye to their friend. 

In the Sisterhood Room that New Light, a Conservative congregation, rented from Tree of Life, Shabbat services had not yet begun on Saturday, October 27, 2018, when shooter Robert Bowers entered New Light’s area. Former New Light Presidents Daniel Stein, 71, and Richard Gottfried, 65, were murdered in the basement kitchen, preparing for the after-service shared Tree of Life–New Light Men’s Club breakfast. Stein, a retired salesman known for his kindness, died a short distance from the site of his grandson’s bris a few months before. A puckish and charitable dentist, Gottfried gave trick-or-treating children toothbrushes on Halloween. Devout in his Jewish faith, Gottfried supported that of his Catholic wife, also a dentist, and the couple volunteered at a free dental clinic. 

Profoundly deaf and mistakenly thinking the shooting at an end, Melvin Wax, 87, died from gunfire while emerging from hiding in a sanctuary closet. Wax earned repute as a superfan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, devoted grandfather, jokester, Korean War veteran, former synagogue vice president and a retired accountant. The New Light Cemetery, located in nearby Shaler, opened a chapel to honor the lives of Stein, Gottfried and Wax with stained-glass windows featuring the sacred readings scheduled for the day of the shooting. 

The Tree of Life building hosted a third congregation, the Reconstructing Judaism Dor Hadash. A student of Torah and a stalwart of the holy burial society, Dor Hadash’s Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, one of the first doctors to treat those afflicted with AIDs with unflinching care and compassion, was fatally shot as he ran toward the victims to administer help. 
“May their memories be a blessing.” 

Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.