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The Tree of Life synagogue massacre led to little action by the Pa. legislature

After the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, state lawmakers enacted a grant program for nonprofit security. Five years later, bills on guns and hate crimes are still stalled.

  • Stephen Caruso/SpotlightPA

 Commonwealth Media Services

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit newsroom producing investigative and public-service journalism that holds power to account and drives positive change in Pennsylvania.

Five months after 11 Jewish worshippers were murdered in a Pittsburgh synagogue, Cheryl Klein rose during a rare joint session of the Pennsylvania General Assembly to make a determined plea.

“We pray that we are not guilty of inaction. We pray that we are not guilty of complacency,” Klein, the rabbi who led one of three congregations at the Tree of Life synagogue, told the gathered legislators in April 2019. “We pray that we are not guilty of allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by politics.”

The antisemitic mass shooting at Tree of Life shook the state and country, and led to immediate, widespread condemnation of hate and calls for a policy response.

Five years later, Klein’s plea for action has borne some fruit in Pennsylvania. In November 2019, the General Assembly agreed almost unanimously to establish grant funding to boost security at nonprofit organizations that serve marginalized communities.

But other long-sought policy changes, including enacting stricter gun laws and expanding who is protected by a state hate crime statute, have failed to win enough bipartisan support to make it to the governor’s desk.

“Politically, having done this for 25 years, I recognize how difficult it is,” state Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny), whose district includes the synagogue, told Spotlight PA.

Lawmakers in both major parties repeatedly told Spotlight PA that they’re proud of the grant program they created after the shooting. Any nonprofit, including a house of worship, can apply for funds to improve its security so long as it represents or provides aid to a group that could be targeted by a federal hate crime. This encompasses groups defined by race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, or gender identity.

“I’m pleased this program continues to have strong bi-partisan support,” state Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) wrote in a statement. “The hatred and anti-Semitism that still exists in the world cannot be tolerated.”

Former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed the program into law just a few weeks after the attack’s first anniversary.

The grants, which can be as large as $150,000 per recipient, can be spent on “security enhancements” such as adding metal detectors, cameras, and lights, or undertaking threat assessments or employee security training.

Alison Gantz, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, which distributes the dollars, told Spotlight PA in an email that a wide swath of groups have tapped the funding.

“Awards have been distributed to Jewish synagogues, day schools, camps, and federations; Islamic mosques; Christian churches targeted either for their political views or demographic makeup; Hindu temples; and organizations serving the LGBTQ+ population, immigrants, or targeted for political views,” she said.

However, demand has far outstripped supply. The General Assembly has allocated $20 million to the program since its inception, but in the same period annual reports show the commission has received about $75 million in requests from hundreds of organizations.

“We’re always going to try to make sure we maintain that and grow it,” state Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) told Spotlight PA. His district also includes the Tree of Life synagogue, and he championed the grant program.

bill that would double this funding for the 2023-24 fiscal year is advancing in the state House and has bipartisan backing.

Gov. Tom Wolf joined Pittsburgh officials in December 2018 to call for stricter gun laws in the wake of the Tree of Life massacre.

Commonwealth Media Services

Gov. Tom Wolf joined Pittsburgh officials in December 2018 to call for stricter gun laws in the wake of the Tree of Life massacre.

Protecting vulnerable groups

Beyond the grant program, few other substantial state policy changes that advocates have asked for and lawmakers have pushed for have passed.

That includes bills that Democrats sought both before and after the Tree of Life shooting that would broaden Pennsylvania’s “ethnic intimidation” law.

Individuals can only be charged under the law if they’ve already committed a crime, such as aggravated assault or stalking, and if prosecutors can prove that they were motivated by their victim being a member of a protected class. If a person is convicted of ethnic intimidation on top of another crime, it can lead to more prison time or a larger fine.

As written, the law already covers antisemitic violence. Among the dozens of state charges against the synagogue shooter were 13 counts of ethnic intimidation.

Frankel hopes to expand the law to add sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability as protected classes. The same proposal would also expand the civil remedies available to victims, including allowing them to file for damages against someone who has encouraged hate crimes.

“I think anybody who belongs to these groups knows how vulnerable they are. This is an epidemic in this country and we as lawmakers have a responsibility to fight hate,” Frankel said. “We can’t solve what’s in their hearts, we can’t cure them of hatred, but we can do the best we can to protect those groups.”

Pennsylvania lawmakers previously agreed to expand the hate crimes statute to cover more people. However, the law was struck down by Commonwealth Court in 2007 for a procedural reason.

The case was brought by protesters who had been unsuccessfully charged under the law for “evangelizing against individuals that were participating in a gay rights event in Philadelphia,” according to the 2007 decision. The plaintiffs, the opinion added, said they planned to “engage in the same type of activity in the future and fear that they will be criminally charged again.”

Three other bills from Frankel and his Democratic allies would create a state law enforcement training program to identify and track “hate-based intimidation,” allow K-12 students to report hate incidents through a preexisting tip line for school safety threats, and require colleges to collect hate-based intimidation reports through an online system that is already required by state law to collect reports on sexual assault. They would also require anyone convicted of a hate crime to take a class on, or conduct community service for, the group against which they showed bias as a condition of probation or parole.

Combined, the bills would create additional tools for groups who feel threatened by violence, Frankel argued.

“The safety grants provide the bricks and mortar to protect these communities,” he said, “and the hate crime statute provides the legal tools for the community to protect itself.”

Frankel has introduced his bills in previous sessions but they did not advance. With Democrats now in charge of the state House, the chamber’s Judiciary Committee passed them along party lines in May. They await a final vote.

A spokesperson for state House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) said leadership is working to ensure “the bill package has strong bipartisan support before moving it forward in the House.”

Gaining bipartisan support would require overcoming the resistance of some conservative groups, such as the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which have argued that the proposals are too broad and will have unintended consequences.

In a statement, former state Superior Court Judge Cheryl Allen, counsel at the institute, said the laws as written “can be used to target speech or people because of ideological disagreements, rather than punishing those who are committing actual crimes.”

Gun restrictions remain a priority

Many state lawmakers and victims of the attacks have also demanded stricter gun laws. The person convicted of carrying out the massacre legally purchased the handguns and assault weapon he used to kill 11 people and injure several others.

Pennsylvania last enacted tighter laws for firearms in 2018, when the GOP-controlled General Assembly passed a measure making it easier to take guns away from domestic abusers in the face of determined opposition by gun rights groups.

The state House is now controlled by Democrats, who passed two gun control bills earlier this year. One would require long gun sales to entail background checks, which current state law mandates only for handguns. The other would allow law enforcement or family to petition a judge to temporarily take away an individual’s firearms if it appears they may harm themselves or others.

The bills have awaited consideration in the state Senate Judiciary Committee since this spring, and leadership has not committed to bring them up for a vote.

A spokesperson for Pittman did not respond to questions about the future of bills restricting guns in the upper chamber.

In her 2019 speech, Klein specifically mentioned gun violence, calling it an epidemic and saying that “these evil acts take away our mothers, brothers, and lifelong friends.”

In a statement, Adam Garber, executive director of the gun control group CeasefirePA, agreed.

“This is how we honor the memories of the 11 worshipers murdered that dark day five years ago — by saving innocent lives going forward,” he said.

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