The Tree of Life murders and trial, part IV: Survival

By Bill Simons 

During a recess in the Tree of Life trial, the corridor outside the courtroom was, as customary, congested. A large contingent of Tree of Life survivors, family and friends attended the sessions. A woman from that group approached and looked me in the eye. She said, “Write a good story.” Quietly, I responded, “I will.”

Thursday, July 13, 2023: phase three of the trial concluded with the jury finding Robert Bowers eligible for the death penalty. I felt a need to observe Shabbat on Friday, July 14, and intended to participate in the Tree of Life service. With their own building shuttered, the Tree of Life congregation met in Levy Hall at Rodef Shalom, a Reform temple. However, when I entered Rodef Shalom, I felt that this was not the Shabbat for a reporter to attend the Tree of Life service. Instead, I joined approximately 50 Rodef Shalom congregants in nearby Cohen Chapel. 

During my summer 2023 return to Pittsburgh, I visited places once familiar from the Squirrel Hill of the 1970s. I stood outside the now closed Tree of Life and my old apartment, as well as the neighborhood commercial center at the intersection of Forbes and Murray avenues. The once prominent Jewish bakeries and restaurants were largely memory, several replaced by Chinese establishments. Although much of Pittsburgh’s former Jewish population now lives in the suburbs, Squirrel Hill remains the heart of Jewish cultural and communal life. Squirrel Hill is still home to much of Pittsburgh’s Jewish infrastructure: synagogues, the Jewish Community Center and Jewish day schools. I bought a corned beef on rye at Murray Avenue Kosher. Eating on a bench, I observed diverse people. Contemporary Squirrel Hill is home to many, sometimes intersecting, groups: Asians, African Americans, Latinx, developmentally delayed and LGBTQ, as well as Chasid, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and secular Jews. On this day, I witnessed neither fear nor tension. 

It has been said that the following summarizes Jewish history: our enemies tried to kill us; we survived; let’s celebrate. The preceding contains truth, but it simplifies and obscures the Jewish experience. Jewish tradition records and remembers tragedy. At our weddings, a glass is crushed. We light the yahrzeit candle in remembrance of those we loved on the anniversary of their deaths. A time of mourning, Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av), marks not only the destruction of the First and Second Temples, but more generally the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people across the centuries. 

Tree of Life murderer Robert Bowers aspired to provide the match that would set off mass murders of Jews and make us afraid to practice our religion. He failed. Nonetheless, American Jews are now less secure. An uptick of antisemitic incidents has occurred, although not of the extent or severity sought by Bowers. Many of us have participated in active shooting training. Police and private security, including surveillance cameras, are now more commonly deployed by synagogues. On August 14, Andrew Lapin of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported, “[O]nline trolls targeted Jewish congregations for the fourth straight week with fake bomb and other security threats. At least 26 congregations in 12 states have received the threats, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which is raising alarm about the barrage.” 

Conversely, the support and friendship emanating from Pittsburgh Protestants, Catholics, Muslims and those of other faiths toward the Jewish community reflects the best of humanity. 
Recovery from catastrophe is never complete or linear, but it is going forward. A week after the Tree of Life verdict, the Pittsburgh Pirates held their annual Jewish Heritage Night on Wednesday, August 9, at PNC Park. Hebrew t-shirts with the Pirates logo and pre-game kosher meals were available. Both the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and Tree of Life embraced the event. 

In the anthology “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy,” Jewish contributors, wedded to the institutional and social fabric of Squirrel Hill, share personal and contemplative essays about the calamity of October 27, 2018. For Linda Hurwitz, director emerita of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, it was the 29th anniversary of the death of Karen, her 17-year-old college-bound daughter. On the night of October 27, 1989, a male friend beseeched Karen to let him come over to the Hurwitz home, despite the lateness of the hour, to vent about the painful breakup with his girlfriend. In the Hurwitz backyard, the young man murdered Karen, strangling her with nunchaku and then mutilating her with a samurai sword. Emotionally drained by the still piercing memories of Karen’s murder, Hurwitz and her husband remained undecided about walking the four blocks to attend Tree of Life services on October 27, 2018. Police sirens and television accounts of the Tree of Life murders then announced that the decision was no longer theirs to make. With the murder of her beloved daughter, relived in the original trial and years of judicial appeals, ever present, Hurwitz understands the pain of Tree of Life survivors, family and friends. By example, however, Hurwitz reminds victims of one of Judaism’s key tenets: the obligation of physical and emotional survival. In the aftermath of Karen’s murder, Hurwitz had the responsibility to inform her parents, both nonagenarian Holocaust survivors, that their precious granddaughter was no more. Summoning great strength amidst their own anguish, Hurwitz’s parents told her, “You will get through it!” Comforting each other, Hurwitz and her husband resolved to find purpose again. They adopted two children, Jeffrey and Julia, who would have their b’nai mitzvah at Tree of Life. Karen’s memory still burns bright, the good times recalled more than the tragic murder. And life goes on. 

Following the verdict in the Tree of Life trial, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh stated, “In the wake of the horrors of the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history, our community neither retreated from participating in Jewish life nor suppressed our Jewishness. Instead, our community embraced our Jewish values – strengthening Jewish life, supporting those in need and building a safer, more inclusive world.”

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.