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Synagogue shooting left a wake of pain that continues to ripple, families testify

A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the in Pittsburgh in 2018.
Matt Rourke
A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the in Pittsburgh in 2018.

Oct. 27, 2018 changed the lives of many people.

That was the day Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life synagogue with four guns, killed 11 Jewish worshippers and injured six other people.

Prosecutors on Tuesday called witnesses for the second day of testimony in the sentencing phase of the trial to lay out what had happened.

Lisa Burns testified how her boyfriend, Pittsburgh Police Officer Daniel Mead, had gone through eight surgeries to repair a hand that had been blown to pieces that day as he confronted Bowers in front of the synagogue. Mead has had to use a wheelchair because of nerve damage that his doctors believe has resulted from his surgeries and shrapnel in his body. More than four years later, Mead’s health issues continue to linger; he was hospitalized again recently for 33 days.

Mead used to play baseball and softball. He used to be a carpenter who could fix anything, Burns said, but now he can't close his hand and some of his fingers don't function.

"There are really no activities," she said. "He lays on the couch and watches TV."

Michael Simon, Bernice Simon’s son, testified that — when he would call his parents from his home in California — he could hear his father, Sylvan Simon, shouting in the background, asking Bernice what they were talking about. Michael said people who offered condolences didn't understand what it was like to lose both parents on the same day to violence.

Simon’s sister Michelle Weis testified that she used to talk to her mom Bernice on the phone several times per day and would see her at least once a week.

"It's hard for me to go on because they were always there for me. I will never have that love from my parents again," Weis said. "I don't have a husband, I’m not married. It's lonely."

The family doesn't get together to celebrate holidays anymore, she said, because her mother was the glue that kept the family together.

Joyce Fienberg was the guiding star of her family, according to her two sons. “She was our world. The world revolved around her. Everything went through her,” her eldest son Anthony Fienberg testified.

Joyce showed “loving-kindness” to everyone, Anthony said, deploying her extreme attention to detail to help make other people’s lives better. As kids, she would make sure everyone had a bag of cut carrots with the date labeled on them. Joyce would send her sons emails that were pages long and, when she got a cellphone, text messages in great detail.

Anthony’s children would stay with Joyce for two months over the summer and Anthony said she would spend the other 10 months of the year preparing for their visit. Joyce would visit her other grandchild at least once a month, even though it was a five-hour drive.

“Grandkids were everything to my mom, probably even more than my brother and I were to her when we were kids,” said her younger son, Howard Fienberg. “She would do anything and go to any length.”

But a big part of what was lost after she was killed, Howard said, was a sense of connectivity with their larger family, especially on her mother’s side in Toronto. It was so easy to stay in touch with family because Joyce would always talk to everyone and share the news.

“If my mother wasn't there arranging for everyone to get together and reminding everyone where everyone else was, whose birthday it was, how old they're getting, who’s married — these things moved through my mother, she was the linchpin of multiple sides of the family.”

Amy Mallinger testified that she lived next door to her grandmother Rose Mallinger growing up and called her Bubbe – the Yiddish word for grandma. Rose would make blueberry pancakes for Amy when she spent the night and her favorite blintzes when she was sad. Amy still visited with Rose two or three times per week as an adult.

Amy said she used to sit on the porch with her Bubbe — who was 97 when she was killed — and they would watch people pass by and talk. Rose had sat on that same porch since they bought the house in 1954. They would sometimes talk on the porch about what they would do for her 100th birthday party, as Amy rubbed her grandma’s arthritic hands.

Prosecutors showed pictures of Rose attending all of her grandchildren’s bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs in the Pervin Chapel at the Tree of Life, the same room where her life ended. On the night of the shooting, Amy said, the family rushed to every hospital and emergency room they could, before Amy’s father came home from the Jewish Community Center and told Amy, as she stood on the porch: “She’s gone.”

Judith Kaye testified that she lost the love of her life, Irving Younger, in the shooting. She met him five years after his wife had passed away from a long battle with diabetes. They would often go out to eat in Squirrel Hill, and young men would come up and thank Younger for being so kind to them when he was their baseball coach. Friends would tell him they just loved to be around him to bask in his warmth.

“It took me 60 years to meet him, and he was the late love of my life,” Kaye said. “And I felt things with him and for him that I had never felt with anyone before him. It was a very special relationship, obviously, and his death has left me feeling very alone and very lost and missing him very much.”

In his last few years, Younger would go to California for two or three months per year to visit with his grandchild. Kaye said Younger would tear up just talking about his grandson.

“When [Younger] spoke of him it was as if his heart was going to explode because he couldn't contain all the love he had for him,” Kaye testified as a picture of Younger with his grandson was shown in court.

Daniel Kramer, the brother-in-law of victim Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, said Rabinowitz’s murder has left a void in the life of his sister, Rabinowitz's widow, Mary.

“She comes home at night from work to an empty house, and he's not there," Kramer said. "And when something good happens in her life, he's not there to share it with and share the happiness. And when something difficult happens in her life, he's not there to help console her."

But Kramer thought it was important to tell the jury that not all of the impacts of Rabinowitz's death have been bad. Rabinowitz used to stand during the "Mourner's Kaddish," a Jewish prayer for people who have died. Standing wasn't typical. But Kramer said Rabinowitz told people the reason he stood was "because there are many people who passed away who don't have people to stand for them. And I'm going to stand for them."

After the shooting, Kramer said, word of Rabinowitz's tradition of standing spread, leading some entire congregations across the world to stand during the Mourner's Kaddish in Rabinowitz’s honor.

Standing up for others was typical of his brother-in-law, Kramer said. Rabinowitz was a family doctor who, after a long day, would make house calls to his elderly patients. One of his patients would make him tea, and he would sit and hold her hand. When the AIDS epidemic started, Rabinowitz would care for AIDS patients and hug them after visits during a time when some doctors refused to see patients at all, let alone touch them. Prior to the synagogue attack, Rabinowitz had plans to retire, and — in addition to some extra travel — he planned to volunteer his services in Ethiopia.

Rabinowitz was such a giving, happy person, according to Kramer, that his death has served as an inspiration to people around him.

"Many of us in our extended family in response to Jerry's death have changed our lives," he said. "Some of us have changed our professions, to try and go in to do things more that more directly help other people."

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Oliver Morrison