Skip Navigation

Pittsburgh synagogue shooting survivors, families lean on each other before trial

  • Kiley Koscinski/WESA
Carol Black, Sharyn Stein, Deane Root and Michele Rosenthal hold a memorial candle. Their group, Families Bridging Kindness, supports survivors and families affected by mass shootings.

 Jakob Lazzaro / 90.5 WESA

Carol Black, Sharyn Stein, Deane Root and Michele Rosenthal hold a memorial candle. Their group, Families Bridging Kindness, supports survivors and families affected by mass shootings.

It’s been four and a half years since 11 Jewish worshippers were killed in Pittsburgh and three congregations — Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light — were changed forever. The shooting, which also wounded six people, is believed to be the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

With the federal death penalty trial for the man charged in the shooting set to start next week, survivors and family members are bracing for what could be months of reliving the horror of that day. While court rules will dictate the pattern of the legal proceedings, survivors say there’s no guidebook for their healing journeys.

Michele Rosenthal lost her brothers Cecil and David on Oct. 27, 2018. For her, the stress of the trial is intensified by the attention around it.

“Nobody realizes what happens when something like this happens in your life,” she said. “It’s not just that you lost a loved one. It’s the publicness of it … a trial coming up … commemorations.”

She said it’s been hard to answer questions from her friends about what to expect. Some members of the community have attended classes on the logistics of the coming proceedings taught by a University of Pittsburgh law professor.

But it’s impossible to speculate about how someone might feel hearing new testimony about that day or having to testify themselves. Deane Root — who was heading into Shabbat services when the attack began — is planning to be patient with himself on the days he can’t bear to be in the courtroom.

“Can I stand to be at the courthouse every day for months? Psychologically, no,” he said. “Do I need to be there some of that time? Absolutely. We are there representing people we love; we are there representing a community that loves us.”

Dan Stein was killed in the 2018 attack. His wife Sharyn now feels a sense of duty to stand in for him.

“My husband needs a voice,” she said. “And I’m the voice.”

A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh

FILE – A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the synagogue. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

A familiar pain

Survivors who spoke to WESA declined to dive into the specifics of the trial, due to concerns about any impact speaking out might have on the proceedings. They also stressed that each person touched by this tragedy has their own nuanced opinion about what they want the outcome of the trial to be and that no one person can speak on behalf of the entire community.

Seven of the nine families who lost loved ones penned a letter urging United States Attorney General Merrick Garland to seek the death penalty in the case. Some others in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community feel differently.

Rev. Sharon Risher is well acquainted with this stage of the journey. Her mother, Ethel Lance, was one of the nine worshippers shot and killed at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. She recalls that preparing to testify felt unlike anything she had done before.

“I was so scared because people had been up there screaming and crying and pouring out their hearts to the devil they saw,” she said.

Risher, who served as a hospital chaplain in Dallas for years, said she felt her mother’s guidance as she took the stand.

“The thing that kept going through my mind was … I was going to be the best representative there for my mother,” she said. “To be in the same place as [the shooter] to say that Ethel Lance mattered.”

For Risher, the end of the trial for the man who killed her mother didn’t signify the end of her healing process. That’s something she’s still navigating today.

“The bottom line is, a tragedy like this … there is no closure. There is no end to the grief,” she said. “You are a changed person.”

Hundreds of people gathered on Oct. 27, 2021 in Schenley Park, to honor those who died or were injured, condemn antisemitism and promote unity throughout the city.

Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

Hundreds of people gathered on Oct. 27, 2021 in Schenley Park, to honor those who died or were injured, condemn antisemitism and promote unity throughout the city.

A tragic club

The connection between the survivors in Charleston and Pittsburgh runs deep. Both groups were attacked in houses of worship. Both shooters face capital punishment. (A federal court sentenced the Charleston shooter to death in 2017; federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty for the Pittsburgh shooter when the trial starts next week).

Carol Black was attending services at New Light Congregation when the shooting began in Pittsburgh. She survived. Her brother, Richard Gottfried, did not. Months later, Black and others traveled to Charleston to be with the Emanuel church congregation. She still gets emotional describing the unspoken understanding between the two groups.

“At one point the minister asked those of us from Pittsburgh to come up to the front, and then the whole congregation came down and hugged us. It was amazing,” she said. “It was just so warm, and they understood.”

Members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community are part of a tragic club of people affected by mass gun violence. It’s a group that has grown exponentially over the last two decades as mass shootings have become a fixture of American life.

Black, Rosenthal, Root and Stein have also connected with families in Parkland, Florida and Poway, California. Rosenthal often calls on those families and others for support during her healing process. She said the experience they share created a kinship unlike anything else.

“There’s an instant bond. I can’t even describe it,” she said. “[It’s] a sense of security and extended family to reach out to. I constantly reach out to a few of them and say, like, ‘How did you get through this?’”

That support inspired fellow survivor Jodi Kart. She — along with Michele Rosenthal, Deane Root, Carol Black, Sharyn Stein and Barry Werber — formed a group called Families Bridging Kindness to pay forward the support they have received in their darkest hours.

The purpose of the group is essential for this community of survivors, according to Root.

“The most important thing that we could do, that any of us as individuals could do, following what had happened, was to reach out and help each other,” he said. “Because we needed each other’s help ourselves.”

Families Bridging Kindness has reached out to more recent shooting survivors with kind words and a seven-day candle often used during the Jewish Shiva practice throughout the mourning period.

Coping together

As the trial begins, survivors and families will likely be retraumatized by reliving those dark memories in a high-stakes environment. A support organization within Pittsburgh’s Jewish Community Center, the 10.27 Healing Partnership, is offering a list of different therapies to support members of the community during this time.

Ranisa Davidson, a program manager with the 10.27 Healing Partnership, said the main priority is to bring people together for support.

“It’s so easy in the wake of trauma to isolate, to retreat to your corner and to grieve alone, because it does feel like you’re the only one going through this,” Davidson said.

According to Davidson, the organization’s support programs are designed to prevent that isolation.

“There’s something very powerful about that human-to-human connection,” she said.

In addition to individual therapy, group sessions and other forms of talk therapy, the organization also organizes activities for survivors. Deane Root has taken several group walks through Pittsburgh’s parks with the Healing Partnership. He calls it a “marvelous” practice that transports him away from the stress of his daily life.

“Soaking in nature, being mindful of the space you’re in, in a different way than we do when we’re very busy people going about our daily lives,” he said. “Or having to soak in all those anxieties … when we are by ourselves.”

Survivors also lean on other, less traditional mental health support practices like music therapy. The Healing Partnership offers vibroacoustic harp therapy sessions — which use the vibrations of a harp to reduce pain and anxiety — and a regular drum circle group.

Another lifeline over the years for many has been to continue practicing Judaism. Carol Black said she never stopped attending services. She went back to her congregation the very next week after the attack. Today, she’s taken on more responsibilities at New Light.

It’s her way of honoring her brother Richard, who was a very active member of the congregation.

“I think that that’s what my brother would have wanted me to do and would have expected me to do,” she said. “To pick up the slack where he’s not there to do it anymore.”

Sharyn Stein said she’s grateful for Black’s efforts in the absence of her husband Dan, Richard and Melvin Wax, men she referred to as the “pillars” of the congregation before they were killed.

“Carol is taking over and making this happen for us,” Stein said. “Our congregation is small and we need all the help we can get.”

Pittsburgh’s Jewish community will be deep in uncharted waters this summer. But the survivors and families of those 11 worshippers will be steadied by the anchor of their bond with each other.

“I didn’t know any of these people before this,” Black said. “It’s just such a resource that I don’t know how I would live without it.”

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »

Up Next
Regional & State News

An older Pa. woman was placed under guardianship. Her family says the system betrayed her.