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Five Years of Reporting on the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting

The following is a transcript of Episode 153 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone, welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on Thursday, August 31st, 2023. It’s a particularly horrific year for American mass shootings. The term mass shootings, by the way, it’s a slippery thing to define. There’s something so perverse about even the very

ambiguity of what counts as a mass shooting, and that we need technical definitions for a phenomenon that so uniquely separates America from every other country on earth. 

But by most definitions, the numbers are way up. The deadliest year on record in terms of number of mass shooting events was 2021, and we’re easily gonna eclipse that in 2023. By most definitions, we average two mass shootings per day. That would be one way of introducing a conversation about the tragic events that took place in Jacksonville, Florida, last week, when a man with a gun walked into a store and killed three people. Just another mass shooting.

But that story, while true, would do deep disrespect to the story, not just as experienced by the victims in that particular case, but to reality. The Jacksonville shooter was a white man with a record of racist and white supremacist writings and commentary. He was carrying a swastika-emblazoned assault rifle. He walked into a dollar store, saw Black people there, and opened fire on them. This was what came after what seems like a different attempted mass shooting, at a historically Black college, which he abandoned when confronted by security. 

So in a different telling of that story, the framework of the phenomenon of mass shootings begins to fade to the background, as the dominant narrative, as the the dominant interpretive overlay. And instead, it’s a different story. It’s the history of violent racism against Black people that has been endemic to the Black experience in America since the first Black Americans were brought to these shores in chains. That violence that has always spiked in direct, proportional relationship to conversations about Black liberation, Black rights, and Black empowerment.

Same goes, by the way, for the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Even though there’s disagreement in law enforcement about whether the fact that it was a gay club factored into the shooter’s decision to target it. It’s reasonable and important, nevertheless, for the LGBTQ community to process the shooting, which, at the time, was the deadliest mass shooting in American history, since surpassed, through the lens of violence that targets the LGBTQ community, its tragic history that continues into our polarized presence. 

In other words, every time we experience one of these events, we have a basic interpretive choice to make, whether as observers from afar, or as the victims and the members of the particular communities that experienced these tragedies. It’s not quite a choice between the universal and the particular, but it’s something akin to it, a decision to read all of these events an episodes as defined by the particular hates and grievances that motivated that particular incident, or whether it’s part and parcel of a kind of American epidemic that doesn’t discriminate between victims and doesn’t spare any of us. I don’t want to judge between these choices. They’re both really important in understanding the these scourges that our society faces. 

Almost five years ago, in October of 2018, Robert Gregory Bowers walked into the Tree of Life, Or L’Simcha Congregation, in Squirrel Hill, a Pittsburgh neighborhood, on a Shabbat morning. At 9:50 AM, he opened fire. He killed 11 people, some who were at prayer, others were hiding, one who had gone out to help others, and he injured six other people. He was motivated, as witnessed in his own writings, by a hatred of HIAS, a Jewish organization that historically supported Jewish immigration and refugees coming to America, that more recently became a Jewish organization that suppprts refugee causes worldwide. He is alleged to have called out “All Jews must die” during his murderous rampage. He was shot by police, and by a little after 11:00 AM, surrendered to police. Bowers was charged with a violation of 63 federal crimes. This past summer, in June, he was convicted on all the counts in federal court for which he was tried, and then sentenced to death. He still awaits trial in a Pennsylvania state court. 

So here too, there’s at least two stories. The killing of Jews in a synagogue is prima facie in anti-Semitic attack, and this is amplified and corroborated by his history of antisemitic rhetoric, all the anti-Semitic comments he made throughout the shooting, beforehand, and after, and even to the SWAT team after he was apprehended. 

Based on the body count, it’s the deadliest anti-Semitic attack on Jews on American soil, and the event deserved to be processed by Jews as part of our bloody and lachrymose history. 

Bowers now inhabits a place in the infamous pantheon of, to quote from the Passover prayer, all those in every generation who have stood over us to destroy us. And then part of me also wonders whether the framing of the Tree of Life shooting as an anti-Semitic attack, also has the unintended effect of divorcing it from how quite commonplace it is for individuals, mostly white men, to just walk into public institutions, whether they’re schools or universities, houses of worship, malls, nightclubs, and opening fire, because the choice not to focus on the commonplace distracts us from the questions that implicate and define all of the events; the guns are the one variable that makes a mass shooting a mass shooting. 

Or there’s even a third narrative or interpretive choice. You might group some of the mass shootings together, perhaps not all, through an intersectional lens, of the oppressions that are experienced by marginalized and less powerful groups through a lens of hatreds like white supremacy, that have always trafficked in this kind of violence,  sometimes state-sanctioned, sometimes vigilante-like, to press their agendas.

Maybe that’s what binds together the experience of the of the primarily Latino victims in Orlando, the Jewish victims in Pittsburgh, the Black victims in Jacksonville; not just that they found themselves down-barrel of an American murderer, but that they’re locked together as part of a nexus of victimhood and vulnerability that will never solve for some if we don’t take seriously what it means to solve for all. 

I’m describing these as different narrative choices, different interpretive frameworks, and I do so probably because this is the way I think about the world and it’s often how I teach. But there are also huge political consequences to these narrative choices. Are we fighting against gun culture? Are we fighting against against anti-Semites? Are we fighting against white nationalists? We all want to say all of the above, but the interpretive choices we make in telling these stories inform, maybe even force, a whole bunch of other choices downstream. 

I wanted to talk today to as storyteller, though I’ve learned that some journalists are not fond of being described that way. Between the time of the shooting and now, Adam Reinherz of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle wrote, by our count, hope we got it right, 76 different pieces about the tragedy. News stories about the twists and turns of the court case, celebrity reflections on their memories of pre-massacre Squirrel Hill, features on lingering traumas, and much more. 

I think it’s an amazing capsule of what it means for a local reporter to both try to grasp the magnitude of a particular community as it is launched to center stage of the national conversation, and it also reflects a kind of effort to try to depict the kaleidoscope of a tragedy that has this kind of scope to anyone who’s actually willing to enter into all of its nuances. 

We’re going to talk about all of this, but Adam lived through, and in some ways, outlived all of the other reporters from national outfits who sailed in and out of Squirrel Hill at key moments, and is a member of the very community, trying to maintain a system of continuity and consistency in his reporting of a story that’s still very much being told. I got to know Adam through our Hartman seminar for journalists and writers, and I’m thrilled that he’s joining us to talk about his five years of covering the story, whichever story we want it to be. So let me start there, Adam, with you personally. You are not only a reporter about these events and incidents. By the way, in addition to the 76 pieces that you wrote over these five years about the Tree of Life shooting, you wrote hundreds of other pieces about Jewish life in Pittsburgh that were not about the Tree of Life shooting. Maybe tell us a little bit about what is has meant for you, what it continues to mean for you, not just to be a reporter about this in your own community, but also as a member of the Pittsburgh Jewish community throughout this time.

Adam: Sure. Well, thank you very much, Yehuda. I really enjoyed your framing of the situation and it’s been an honor to speak with you today. So, I think that when I was listening to your monologue and I always learned so much when we’re together, I heard you break it down into three different stories. There’s the story of the killing of Jews in the synagogue. There’s the story of guns in America. And there’s the long story of the hatred is espoused by white supremacists and how this story in particular links together a long chain of hatred in America. There’s a fourth story I think that you began to talk about and that’s the one that I think has driven so much of my reporting and my colleagues reporting. And that’s the story of community. 

The three synagogues that were together inside the Tree of Life building, those were three congregations of different denominations. that coalesced, that worked together, that found a way to continue. In the aftermath of the shooting, a community rallied together. And for the past five years, so many of the stories, yes, have involved, as you mentioned, profiles, covering events, interviewing the victims’ families, interviewing survivors, interviewing people who’ve come through town. But the majority of the stories have been filled with the backdrop of what it is to live and report. and work and persist and continue to move forward in a community that so desperately wants to do that, that so desperately has done that.

Yehuda: You know, building on that, there was a powerful piece by Ron Kampeas, who’s a national reporter for JTA, his reflections on the various moments that he had found himself in Squirrel Hill over the last few years, right after the shooting and during the various phases of the trial, and it ends with him weeping. And I can’t imagine if national reporters who are only in Squirrel Hill periodically are experiencing that degree of a personal toll, how much more it must be for those who are local. 

And I’d love for you to talk, if you can, if you feel comfortable talking about, I find it very eloquent that you talk about this as also the story of a community and a particular community, but what it means to be a stakeholder and a member of that community experiencing this as well.

Adam: Sure. Look, it’s a tremendous privilege to tell the story of my community. I don’t take it lightly. And I understand full well that the responsibility of telling your community story is something that existed well prior to October 27th, 2018. The fact that I’m able to do this is because generations of reporters in this community have done so before me. And hopefully generations of reporters will do so afterwards. It’s because we have the support of our community. It’s because our community entrusts us and tells us their story. They tell it to us in confidence with the hope that we can get it right. That whether they tell it to us in a grocery store, in a pool, in a locker room, in a gym, in a park, in a synagogue, wherever it’s going to be, that will take that story and that will honor it and that will make it accessible to a wider community.

Yehuda: You know, today you’re talking on a podcast that has a national reach, a whole bunch of people who don’t live in Squirrel Hill who are hearing about this from the perspective of a reporter who lives in the community. And a lot of the national reporting obviously is going to do that. They’re going to maybe explain a little bit about what is local color to help people understand and illustrate the dimensions of that story. But I suspect that writing for the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, you’re writing for people who already know quite a bit. And even though obviously it all appears online, so anybody can read it, it feels to me like you have a unique role in which you’re actually explaining the story not just about Pittsburgh to people outside, but about Pittsburgh to Pittsburghers. So what has that looked like and felt like?

And especially Jewish Pittsburghers who may know the people, who may know a lot about Tree of Life, who may know a lot about the dynamics inside the community itself. 

Adam: Sure, no, I think that’s a fantastic question. And I think that’s one of the biggest honors of this job is that, you know, early on, one of the first assignments I had years and years ago, I can’t remember what it was. And I just remember that I had filed the story and, you know, I emailed it over to the editor at the time and the editor was, you know, this is obviously well, pre-remote work, and what had happened was the editor walked over and said to me, and was like, you must be really happy that you finished the story. And I was like, yeah. And the editor was like, I see that you took a lot of time ensuring that these quotes were appropriately used, that they were placed in this part of the story. And I said, yeah. And the editor said to me, you know, you know, you think that this is where the story ends. This is where the story begins. 

And the point is that it now goes out to the people and the people get to decide, you know, what the story means, regardless of what our intent was. And that’s a tremendous honor that the same people that I write about are the people that I’m gonna see, you know, at a restaurant, at a grocery store, at the back of a synagogue. And there’s a huge level of accountability. And that is awesome in so many ways. It’s great. It’s daunting. It’s thrilling. It’s humbling. But it’s an amazing thing to know that the people that are trusting me with their story, I’m gonna see them probably a couple hours after I write it. I’m gonna see them a couple hours after it goes online. I’m gonna see them a couple hours after it gets printed and mailed to their house.

Yehuda: Yeah, you know, I’m curious about all of the different dynamics of being a Jewish reporter for a Jewish community about a Jewish event. And I wanna unpack a bunch of those, but the first I wanna start with is, you know, one of the famous things that happened right after the shooting was that the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, which is a larger publication than the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, ran, you know, its headline was the words of the Kaddish in Aramaic as the headline above the fold. 

First time I can, I’m sure somebody will be listening to this and say, let me tell you another time when it happened that this newspaper, another time, I just, I don’t remember that in Jewish history where a massacre took place and the newspaper embraced the particularistic Jewish story. And I’m curious what that read like or felt like as a Pittsburgh journalist, almost like a blurring of the boundaries between the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, and whether or not just that commitment alters your sense of what it means to be particularly a Jewish journalist within the context of this community.

Adam: Sure, I think that’s also another phenomenal question. And so much of this early on, I remember on that day that I ran into a colleague who worked for the PG and I was like, how many people do you have working on this? And they said something like, I don’t know, 30 I think it was at the time. And I’m like, oh my gosh, we literally have like two staff writers, one, and so a lot of this, and I want to credit you and I also want to credit our cohort in particular, Laura Adkins and Emily Tamkin, especially with helping me also sort of understand the role of the national media in all of this because for so long it felt, you know, either whether it was, like you talk about that headline that the PG ran, which was great. 

And, you know, I would, just as a wrinkle to that, our trial coverage was incredibly bolstered and supported by a group of journalists from the Post Gazette who subsequently went on strike, formed their own publication, the Union Progress. And they were many of the same journalists that had reported on the shooting in 2018. And we worked together to basically do right by the story and to honor the story. And there’s no way that we could have done it to the quality and the level that we did. over the last several months without their help. And they deserve a tremendous, tremendous amount of recognition and appreciation. 

And then similarly, like I mentioned, Laura and Emily and the members of our cohort for sort of helping me in particular understand the role that we play as hyper-local journalists with two staff writers to sort of, in a sense, cover a story that you’ve so eloquently stated, has so many reverberations within the Jewish world and within the world at large.

Yehuda: I get why the national media story can bolster the coverage of hyperlocal. I think what we need a little bit more of is the reverse case, why national media is dependent on hyperlocal coverage. Because as you know better than anybody else who’s listening, Jewish local newspapers are an endangered species. There’s a whole bunch of reasons why, economic, social media, etc. 

But I guess maybe it would help to people understand this. What are the kinds of things that a hyperlocal reporter of a particular Jewish community can add and amplify to our understanding of the story? Maybe give us a couple of examples of things that you were able to suss out and discern from Tree of Life survivors, from elements of the community that would have been indiscernible to a reporter who was trying to just say, here’s another mass shooting. OK, it took place in a synagogue, I guess, that’s a church. What are those dimensions or elements that you bring to the story that forces us to reckon with the fact that we are dependent on local Jewish journalism more than we think we are?

Adam: I think the first thing is language. I don’t want to correct you in any way, but I do want to say that it’s the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Tree of Life was the building, but there were three congregations in there that day. There was Tree of Life, there was New Light Congregation, and there was Dor Chadash. And each of those congregations have a beautiful history in Pittsburgh. And each of those congregations were deeply affected that day. It wasn’t just Tree of Life, it was Tree of Life and New Light and Dor Chadesh. And so it was the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. 

So helping people understand along those lines language, but language is an outgrowth of community, helping them understand that Squirrel Hill, yes, it’s the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, but it’s an incredibly stable and resilient community. It’s a community that has had a vibrant Jewish presence for a hundred years in which people, you know, spend nice days walking the streets. You see people Jewish life and non-Jewish life. You ask about each other’s parents, you ask about each other’s children, you watch your neighbor’s kids grow up, you have this incredible opportunity to be in community. And that only comes because people for years have fought for community and continue to fight for community. And that doesn’t come lightly.

And it’s a beautiful place, it’s a magical place. I hope you come visit it. I try to get everyone I talk to come visit it. It’s a really special place. And one of the most special things that I can just tell you about it is that there’s a program that happens at our JCC. It’s a program that’s a collaboration between the JCC and the Federation. And on the first night of Shavuot, what happens is that there’s three one-hour slots and each of the one hour slots is occupied by a different Jewish educator. Many of them are spiritual leaders. Many of them are Jewish educators in the community. And it’s everyone from a Hebrew priestess to, you know, a Kolel rabbi from Lakewood. And every gradation and variation of Jewish life that you can imagine.

And for three hours on that night of Shavuot, 500 people from all walks of Jewish life come together, sit together in the JCC and study Torah together. They study all these different nuances and ripples in the Jewish tradition and the Jewish lines of thinking. And that’s a testament to who we are. It’s not a denominational breakdown. It’s a yes, and, how can we come together, build each other up?

Yehuda: You know, one of the effects sometimes of these things, when these things kind of events happen is, for a short period of time, there are displays of solidarity. So I think when the shooting took place, that Shabbat, I happened to have been visiting my parents in New Jersey, and everybody went to Shul. Not every, that doesn’t always happen, but it was like, okay, it was packed that weekend, because it was a way of signaling, you know, look, we’re not scared. 

I’m curious what, whether that’s true for Pittsburgh Jews. what the residual effects are, that you can describe, anything you can describe in terms of resistance to going back to Shul, fear of going back to Shul, where are the places in which the trauma of this continues to linger for Jewish life and culture in the Pittsburgh community, especially as we’re kind of a month away from the high holidays, is when we all kind of en masse show up back in synagogue.

Adam: Sure. You know, I think that’s something which is obviously noticeable is that in the aftermath, so many of our spaces became target hardened and you know, you go places and you see a lot more security. But also, in addition to seeing a lot more security, you see a lot more resources. You see therapy dogs, you see drum circles, you see mental health professionals on site. It’s so many of our public events, things that you never would have imagined may be triggering. 

And yet, thanks to the incredible work of so many people here, and I want to just signal out, you know, the 10.27 Healing Partnership and JF&CS in particular, they’ve made so many resources available for the community. You’ll have sort of these pop-up tents in the community where people can come and just talk. And, you know, what we’ve learned is that there’s no sort of like natural progression. It’s not like, okay, something happened, you know, on October 27th, 2018, and two years later, everyone’s gonna be okay, or everyone’s gonna sort of be at this point. Things ebb and they flow and there’s different waves. And what the real constant is in all of this is that this is a community that so deeply cares about each other and people, and wants to ensure that there is a path forward, that there is a future, and that future involves all of us, and that all of us are taken care of.

Yehuda: You speak so passionately, Adam, as a member of this community. It’s very clear how much pride you have in the Pittsburgh Jewish community, its resources, and its institutions. At times, reading through the corpus of your writing. I could discern an immense amount of restraint. And one of the pieces that you wrote was a reporter’s notebook piece about Donald Trump’s visit to Squirrel Hill. It was an unbelievably controversial visit because many people in this country and the Jewish community believe that the Trump presidency unleashed a lot of the forces that have emboldened people to go and do these kinds of things. And yet your piece represented an immense amount of restraint that effectively describes, step by step, Trump’s visit. You allude to the fact that there are some people who were yelling at him, you know, make America peaceful again.

But you, you kind of hold back from weighing in. I assume that part of that is professional disposition, you’re a journalist who’s telling people what happened. But what are the other forces that are motivating you, as someone who obviously has very strong and deep attachments and opinions about the place that you’re in and are observing that the participation of politicians in shaping these stories also can have an impact on how that story is understood in ways that might be right, might be wrong?

Adam: So that piece in particular, I remember that day, and the White House had reached out and asked if any of us wanted to follow the president’s arrival. And I said, sure, I remember being a part of the local press pool. I remember a Secret Service person when Air Force One was landing was like, are you print? Are you video? Are you digital? And I’m holding up my phone with a pad of paper. And I’m trying to write and take pictures and take video all at the same time. And I’m like, I guess I’m all of them, which makes sense to Jewish journalists, but to people from larger publications with telephoto lenses, you know. 

But anyways, I remember that early on in our fellowship, actually, Shira Hanau and I had a conversation in Riverside Park, all about this exact topic and about how much of a part of the story we as journalists actually are. And you know, I kept maintaining, no, no, we’re just, we’re just observers or reporters, we’re recording it, we’re just, and she was like, absolutely not, especially as Jewish journalists, like, we can’t pretend that we’re not a piece of the story itself. And that was something that, especially over the last five years, I really thought a lot about. And like, what is my piece of this story? What is our piece of the story? And how does that fit within so many of the narratives that you mentioned early on? 

And again, that’s a credit to you, to Hartman, to Laura Adkins and Emily Tamkin for also just helping me understand that early on, whether it’s that piece or whether it was so many pieces where we’d write these pieces and as fast as we would write them, as thorough as they’d be, there was no way that they were going to be up and they were going to be disseminated with the rapidity or I guess the speed that larger outlets could. And that’s okay. That’s really all right. That’s what I’ve come to understand is that it’s more like, it’s not like a needle point. It’s more a patchwork. It’s more a quilt of how we’re telling the story. 

And the pieces are gonna look different. Some are gonna get on that blanket a little faster. Some are gonna have more detail, but every piece is gonna matter in terms of how we’re telling the story. And that’s something which I had to sort of learn along the way. And that also, I had to also learn that it’s not that I’m not the one that’s also sewing it into the blanket. Like I’m also helping create that construct.

Yehuda: You know, one of my, I guess this is one of my problems in life is that I’m obsessed with the question of where we are in Jewish history, what it means to live in Jewish history. So this doesn’t always happen with this podcast, but maybe because I was up late writing in preparation for today, but I dreamt about this conversation. I had a pretty intense dream, but it didn’t look like this. I wasn’t interviewing you. I was walking and talking in what I now process as being an Eastern European shtetl. I felt like I was in a Yizkor book, narrating a catastrophe of Jewish history, witnessing it. Maybe there was a little bit of what I can remember in my dream felt like I was in the March of the Living. 

I’m wondering whether that resonates with you at all, what it felt like to you to be telling a story of a great Jewish tragedy as the member of a people who has told stories about great Jewish tragedies throughout our history. If you ever had moments over the last five years of feeling like you were one of the great chroniclers, I’m not telling you that you have to describe yourself that way, but as a chronicler of a catastrophe of the Jewish people, not merely an event that took place in Pittsburgh, not merely a mass shooting, but participating in some of this, I don’t know, myth-making of the Jewish people and the tragedies that have befallen us.

Adam: Okay, so first things first, your dreams are so different than mine.

Yehuda: Yeah. This was unusual. I’ll just say it was unusual.

Adam: Yeah, no. Look, I think that’s incredibly kind of you to frame it as such. I am someone who has the privilege of living in a community that is an incredibly magical place, that is an incredibly special place. And the reason that it is, is because of so many people that have worked so hard. So many people that I don’t know their names, so many people that I don’t know their families, that I don’t know their stories. And yet somehow they did something that enabled somebody else, who enabled somebody else to tell me that story. And I get to sort of perpetuate that. And that’s an awesome responsibility. It is a tremendous privilege. 

If you wanna call it myth-making, I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think it’s telling a story of what life is like here. And, you know, for people that come and visit and people that come and see what the way of life is like here, there’s nothing else like it. It’s really an incredible place. People really truly care about each other. And when we talk about these different narratives, like the narrative that I think that I’ve worked so hard to tell and that so many people have made it so easy to tell is that story of community, that story of how do we support each other, both when things are horrifyingly awful and also when things are amazingly great. How do we tell a story of a sisterhood bake sale that seemingly shouldn’t be news, but is a really great thing? How do we tell a story about the new CEO of the Jewish Community Center? How do we tell a story about a synagogue event that, you know, seemingly for, all intents and purposes many people wouldn’t care about except for the fact that it welcomed 25 people who really care, who care about their institution, who care about their legacy. And so I don’t think it’s myth-making. I think it’s just telling the story of Jews.

Yehuda: Okay, but I wanna push you a little bit on that, because I think it is myth-making, because one of the things that has emerged in the last couple of years is that the newly imagined Tree of Life is now a big 501(c)(3) that hired a national leader and fundraiser not to quote unquote merely rebuild a local synagogue for people to go to shul, but as an institution that is oriented towards, in its own words, ending antisemitism. Not merely remembering. the anti-Semitic incident that took place in Pittsburgh, but actually leveraging the place that this community has in the story to build out a major political effort on behalf of American Jews to do something very significant. That to me, I use the term myth-making to mean we are taking this to mean something bigger, something larger, much more enduring than just the local story of what happened here. So that’s happening left and right, right now, in the Pittsburgh Jewish community. So it has to mean more than quote unquote just the local color or the human stories that are materializing right now. There’s something else at play for Pittsburgh Jews in positioning themselves and their institutions as at the tip of the spear in turning their own memories into something that’s gonna be much more politically significant.

Adam: Yes, I would say I would agree with you that there is an effort to learn from what transpired and to use it to end anti-Semitism and end hate. And that is consistent with the efforts of so many of our institutions and organizations that are seeking to learn from what transpired yesterday, what transpired a week ago, and how to better tomorrow. So yes. I see it as consistent with the work that has happened to date.

Yehuda: Okay, let me ask you a couple of other things just about the state of Pittsburgh Jews right now. One of which is, you know, the result of the trial, the conviction. I mean, imagine the pretty easy conviction of the shooter. But the bigger deal was the sentencing to death. You wrote a piece in 2019, which we include in our list of 76 pieces about the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, even though it doesn’t actually get referenced, which was a discussion that you had with a whole bunch of rabbis across the Pittsburgh Jewish community about their opinions on the death penalty. It’s not hard to read between the lines that you were anticipating and sussing out. 

The federal death penalty statute had returned. This was going to be an obvious case where it was going to be tested. And there was quite a bit of disagreement among local rabbis about the applicability or support for the death penalty in general. And I have a hypothesis, and maybe you’ll tell me if I’m right or wrong, that many people who have opinions on death penalty in general, those opinions get altered by the experience of living through a moment like this. And maybe like I can be a death penalty, like in general I oppose the death penalty, but maybe when someone comes in and shoots up my synagogue I feel differently. I’m curious where the community is, if you can speak about general trends, in terms of their sense of their support for or opposition to this particular sentencing.

Adam: There’s two things that I want to say. One, I obviously can’t speak for an entire community at large. I can only speak for myself. And I can tell you, you know, the different things that I have heard, but I can’t speak for an entire community on what a community’s sense of the death penalty is. 

I can tell you that one of the most amazing things I saw over the course of the trial was that on the last day when it was, the sentencing was occurring or sorry, when the verdict was delivered. Two things happened. It was the jury was asked to deliver the verdict. They were polled. They all articulated on each of the factors, how they had felt. And the courtroom was completely silent. There was very, very little emotion in the courtroom. And this is something that had been building for, as you mentioned, close to five years.

And what had happened is that Judge Robert Colville, he turned to the jury and he said to them, at the onset of this whole thing, I mentioned to you how big of a service it is to democracy. that you come here every day, that you give your undivided attention. It’s a privilege and it’s a place of honor to serve in a jury. And he thanked them and he thanked them for their service and for their duty to justice and to the judicial system and to this country. And then he started choking up. And he said, this is in a courtroom with victims, families, members, with survivors, with the public, that everyone else had been told repeatedly just to demonstrate restraint. He got choked up and he said, over the course of my career, I have given that speech and thanked hundreds of juries. I have never delivered it with that much sentiment. 

And to me, it was just an amazing thing to see. This sort of sense that people could work so hard to sort of work within a system that may not always be right, but they’re working really, really hard to get something right. And it was not an easy decision. And I can’t speak for the jurors, I can’t speak for the families, I can’t speak for the community. But to watch the person that was. administrating all of this to watch how emotional he got, that to me was an amazing takeaway.

Yehuda: Adam, you’ve been generous with your time and we appreciate it. I guess I’ll ask you one last question, which is, I don’t suppose that you’re finished writing about the story, partly because the lines, as we’ve talked about, will continue to blur between when is a story about the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and when is it about the Pittsburgh Jewish community and the long reach of the ways that this memory, active memory, trauma, residual memory, passive memory, continue to implicate it. But what are the three or four things that, or one or two that you’re continuing to explore and listen for, and what can we anticipate? What should we be listening for as observers and readers from afar as this piece of American Jewish history continues to unfold?

Adam: Well, I thank you so much for asking that question. And I think that the thing that readers should be listening for in the work of us at the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and my incredibly talented colleagues is just listen to the story of our community. I know you pointed to 76 pieces and it’s, I feel as though it’s, you know, I know you mentioned that I’ve written hundreds of other pieces. The story of our community, even in a story that I write, that doesn’t have October 27th mentioned, that doesn’t have a Pittsburgh synagogue shooting mentioned, it doesn’t have Tree of Life or Dor Chadash or New Light or the names of the 11 people or their families or the survivors or the police officers or the first responders or the mental health experts. 

Every story that we write has that in the backdrop. It’s a part of who we are. It’s not who we are, but it’s a piece of who we are. And the larger story is, how do we continue to do the things that got us to October 27th? And how do we continue to do the things that have propelled us from October 27th? And I think that if there’s anything that I would like the larger world to know, it’s that there’s something really powerful that happens here. I don’t take it for granted. I’m incredibly privileged to be a part of it. And if people can learn from that, I think that as hokey as it sounds, I think that we can all do just a little bit better.

Yehuda: Thank you all today for listening to our show, and special thanks to our guest, Adam Reinherz. 

Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman with assistance from Miri Miller, Sarina Shohet, and Talia Harris. This episode was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. Maital Friedman is our vice president for communications and creative, and our music is provided by Socalled. 

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at We’re always looking for ideas of what to cover in future episodes. If you have a topic you’d like to hear about or comments on this episode, you can write to us at [email protected]. You can rate and review our show on iTunes to help more people find it. And you can subscribe to our show everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week, and thanks for listening. Thank you, Adam.

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