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Why rabbi of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue kept prayer book with bullet hole

'It’s a witness to the horror of the day. One day when I’m not there, this book tells a story that needs to be told.'
Posted at 2:14 PM, May 31, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-31 14:27:44-04

A powerful image of a Jewish prayer book damaged with a bullet hole was released as evidence Wednesday in the death penalty trial of the man accused of killing 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018.

The photo was entered into evidence Tuesday during testimony by Jeffrey Myers, the rabbi of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

In the Jewish faith, damaged prayer books are traditionally buried as a sign of respect, he testified. But Myers decided to keep this prayer book, known as a siddur.

“It’s a witness to the horror of the day,” he testified. “One day when I’m not there, this book tells a story that needs to be told.”

The photo was released a day after opening statements in the death penalty trial, which is expected to last into July. Robert Bowers, 50, has pleaded not guilty to 63 charges, including obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death and hate crimes resulting in death.

The mass shooting is part of a broader rise in antisemitism in recent years. A year afterward, a 19-year-old killed one person and wounded three others at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California – violence exemplifying the ongoing threat to American Jewry.

The photo of the damaged prayer book was one of a number of photo exhibits released to the public Wednesday morning, including images of the congregants present the day of the shooting and images of the synagogue after the attack.

One exhibit shows crime scene tape and drops of blood on the floor of one part of the synagogue. Another exhibit shows police body camera video of Myers exiting the synagogue and passing a line of police officers while clutching his yarmulke on his head.

He testified that during the attack he fled the chapel and called 911, and he also prayed and thought of his ancestors.

“I thought about the history of my people, how we’ve been persecuted and hunted and slaughtered for centuries, and how all of them must have felt at the moments before their death,” he said.

What happened at opening statements

The prosecution on Tuesday laid out in graphic detail Bowers’ actions during the attack and highlighted his many comments before, during and after the shooting expressing his hatred for Jews.

“Once he entered the synagogue the defendant began to hunt, he moved from room to room, upstairs and downstairs … looking for Jewish worshippers to kill,” said prosecutor Soo C. Song.

The defense said there was no dispute that Bowers was responsible for the mass killing but offered a legalistic defense that relied on a close read of the hate crimes charges. Attorney Judy Clarke argued his motivation in the attack was based on his hatred for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a nonprofit that helps refugees, rather than his hatred of the Jewish religion.

“Does the fact that he entered a synagogue to kill Jews establish that he was motivated by their actual or perceived religion, or was he motivated by the fact that he believed that these individuals supported HIAS?” she said.

Still, Clarke made repeated references to “this phase of the case,” a sign that the defense expects the case ultimately will proceed to the penalty phase, when the jury will decide whether to sentence him to death.

Myers was one of three witnesses to testify on the first day of the trial. He examined the book in court and noted that there is a stamp on it reading, “Tree of Life Congregation.”

“I was going to talk about the Jewish imperative to welcome all guests, no matter who they might be,” Myers said. “But I never gave that sermon.”

The charges stem from the heinous shooting in which Bowers allegedly stormed into the Tree of Life synagogue on the morning of Saturday, October 27, 2018. The synagogue was hosting three congregations, Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light, for weekly Shabbat services.

Armed with three handguns and an AR-15 rifle, he shot out a large window near the entrance to the synagogue and then opened fire on congregants, according to the indictment. He was shot multiple times by police and ultimately surrendered and was taken into custody. Authorities have said they believe he acted alone.

The mass shooting left 11 people dead and six wounded, including four police officers who responded to the scene. Among the dead were a 97-year-old great-grandmother, an 87-year-old accountant and a couple who were married at the synagogue more than 60 years earlier.