Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh
Tree of Life Synagogue in PittsburghReuters

Every Thursday, Brad Orsini gets on a conference call with dozens of other security specialists who, like him, focus on preventing threats to American Jews. But in a few days, and for the coming months, the conference call won’t just address the dangers of the present and future. It will also deal with events that occurred more than four years ago.

That’s because next week marks the beginning of the trial of the gunman who is accused of killing 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018.

Orsini, who oversaw the city’s Jewish communal security on the day of the attack in the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, hopes to find a sense of closure in the alleged shooter’s prosecution. But he also knows that the trial threatens to broadcast the white supremacist ideas that lay behind the attack, and continue to pose risks for Jewish communities. And he worries that, in addition to providing a possible pathway for survivors and victims’ families to move into the future, it could also thrust them back into a painful past.

“It’s long overdue,” Orsini said. “This has been looming large over the Pittsburgh community and, quite honestly, the Jewish community in the nation. We’re all looking toward finishing this trial and prosecuting this actor for what he did.”

At the same time, he added, “This trial is going to reopen wounds that this community has suffered for almost five years now, and it’s going to have the ability to retraumatize many people in the community. And we have to be concerned about that.”

Beginning on Monday, those countervailing emotions and expectations will come to bear as the deadliest antisemitic attack in American Jewish history is litigated in court. The trial, which will begin with jury selection, is expected to last about three months. Few doubt the guilt of the accused shooter, Robert Bowers, whose name is hardly uttered by Jewish residents of Squirrel Hill. But what remains unclear is what the trial will mean for American Jews — and for the families most directly affected by the attack.

Some hope for the defendant to get the death penalty — even though that will mean prolonging the legal ordeal — while others have advocated against it. Some hope for the trial to shed light on the threat of white supremacy, even as renewed attention on the attack could inspire other violent extremists. And some hope the trial will help them move past the tragedy, even as they know it will be difficult to hear the details of the shooting laid out in court.

“The country is going to have to undergo this unprecedented trial of the country’s worst mass killer of Jews,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. “It’s going to be really hard, so I think our community is really going to have to buckle down and brace ourselves.”

The attack on Saturday morning, Oct. 27, 2018, killed 11 people from three congregations, all of which met at the same building, and injured six others, including four police officers. The defendant faces 63 criminal charges, including hate crimes and murder charges. He has pleaded not guilty. The prosecution is seeking the death penalty — a choice some relatives of victims are vocally supporting. Previously, leaders of two of the three congregations that suffered the attack had opposed the death penalty in this case.

“This massacre was not just a mass murder of innocent citizens during a service in a house of worship,” Diane Rosenthal, sister of David and Cecil Rosethal, who died in the attack, told local journalists, according to reporting by the Pittsburgh Union Progress. “The death penalty must apply to vindicate justice and to offer some measure of deterrence from horrific hate crimes happening again and again.”

For the survivors and families of victims, the trial will likely be especially painful. Some told the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle that they intend to take time off work, delay a vacation or be away from family for an extended period of time to be present at the proceedings.

“I want to see justice happen, but at the same time, I hate to think about the families having to potentially see images of what happened and things of that sort,” Steve Weiss, who survived the attack, told the weekly Jewish newspaper. “I’m sure they have mental images, but to have to actually see photos of victims and things of that sort I think can really be difficult for them.”

One thing few people question is the shooter’s guilt, despite his plea of not guilty. He offered to plead guilty in 2019 in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table, but prosecutors, determined to pursue capital punishment for the crime, rejected the plea.

It was the same thing that had happened in the case of the man charged with killing nine Black worshippers in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015. But there, despite the rejected guilty plea, the trial took place a year and a half after the attack, and the shooter was sentenced to death. (In an illustration of the length of death penalty cases, his latest court proceeding happened in October, and he has not yet been executed.)

In contrast, the Pittsburgh trial is not starting until four and a half years after the shooting there. Part of the reason for the delay stems from the work of the defense team, which has pushed back the trial through various court filings. The alleged shooter’s lead attorney, Judy Clarke, has defended a series of high-profile attackers: the Unabomber, the attacker in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics bombing and the Boston Marathon bomber, among others. According to Pittsburgh’s local CBS affiliate, her singular goal is to avoid the death penalty for her client.

But in many other ways, the parallels between the Charleston trial and this one are clear. Both concern shootings by alleged white supremacists in houses of worship, tragedies that have become gruesome symbols of a national rise in bigotry. In both, the culpability of the defendant was assumed before the trial began. Like the Pittsburgh defendant, the Charleston shooter has been lionized by white supremacists, including some who cited him as an inspiration for their own violent acts.

And in both cases, there is an understanding that a conviction does not heal the wounds opened by the shooter.

“This trial has produced no winners, only losers,” said the judge in the Charleston shooter’s trial, Richard Gergel, according to the New Yorker. “This proceeding cannot give the families what they truly want, the return of their loved ones.”

Still, some who are watching the Pittsburgh trial closely hope that it will bring new facts and connections to light. Amy Spitalnick, the executive director of Integrity First for America, a nonprofit that spearheaded a multimillion-dollar victory in a civil trial against the organizers of the 2017 far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, hopes that the Pittsburgh trial illustrates the links among different white supremacist shootings — such as the attacks in El Paso, Texas; Christchurch, New Zealand; and at a synagogue in Poway, California.

Those attackers spouted similar conspiracy theories and referenced other recent violent attacks in their manifestos. Spitalnick said that the accused Pittsburgh shooter allegedly communicated with the organizers of the Charlottesville rally on the social network Gab, which is known as a haven for right-wing extremists.

“Trials like this can really be illustrative of how deep the poison of white supremacy and antisemitism goes,” she said. In the Charlottesville trial, she said, “The reams and reams of evidence… really helped pull back the curtain on what motivated the defendants, how they operated, the tools and the tactics of the movement, the conspiracy theories at its core.”

There’s also the possibility that, with the attack resurfacing the shooter’s motivations, and putting him back in the spotlight, it will act as an inspiration for other white supremacists. In the years following the synagogue shooting, Pittsburgh became a kind of pilgrimage site for the defendant’s admirers — leading to continued harassment of local Jews.

“We’re giving a platform to an individual who is a Jew hater, who wanted to kill all Jews,” Orsini said. “What does that spark in other like-minded people? We need to be very cognizant throughout this trial on what kind of chatter is going to be out there on the deep dark web, or even in open portals.”

In the face of concerns about retraumatization, Greenblatt said the ADL is preparing resources on how to discuss the trial with students and amid the Jewish community.

“To relive the horrors of, the grief of, the event — this thing being constantly in the news — it’s going to be hard to avoid, it’s going to be difficult and it could be grisly and upsetting,” Greenblatt said. “I would much prefer this trial didn’t happen — I would much prefer this crime never happened, I would much prefer that those people were all still with us today — but this is where we are.”

He added, “If there might be some ability to raise awareness among the non-Jewish population of what we’re facing, [that] would be of value.”

One potential challenge for American Jews as a whole, Spitalnick said, is that federal prosecutors don’t necessarily share the needs of Jews who will be following the proceedings. While the trial will conjure a mix of emotions for Jews locally and beyond, she said, prosecutors will be more focused on the nuts and bolts of what happened that day and the details of the accused attacker’s actions and motives.

“We’re going to probably spend a lot of time hearing from the prosecution about what motivated him, but it’s not through the lens of what we as Jews think about when we think about Jewish safety,” she said. “It’s through the lens of making the case that this guy did what he did motivated by this extremism and hate… It’s going to be very deliberate and tactical and precise, versus where we as American Jews have been thinking about this from a deeply personal, communal safety perspective.”

The deliberate and detailed work of prosecutors, however, may not be at cross purposes with the emotional needs of Jews, Orsini said. When the trial ends, he said, the establishment of Bowers’ guilt may itself prove to be transformative for how Jews relate to the tragedy, in Pittsburgh and beyond.

“The fact that this individual has not been fully brought to justice… and is not convicted yet of this mass shooting — in some way, yes, that closure and finality will be done at the end of this trial,” he said. “The community can kind of regroup and truly become resilient once this phase is over with.”