National News

Pittsburgh Synagogue’s Rabbi Speaks of Horror and Healing

Posted October 29, 2018 8:23 p.m. EDT

In a blog post last summer, three months before a man with an AR-15-style assault rifle opened fire on his Pittsburgh congregation, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers railed in sharp tones against the failure of lawmakers to address gun violence.

“I fear that the status quo will remain unchanged,” Myers wrote, invoking the words of Rabban Gamliel, a second-century Jewish scholar: “Be wary of the authorities! They do not befriend anyone unless it serves their own needs.”

On Monday, as Myers sought to make funeral arrangements for congregants killed in the mass shooting Saturday, some other Jewish leaders in Pittsburgh rejected a proposed visit by President Donald Trump, saying his rhetoric encouraged white nationalist violence. But Myers offered a message of healing.

“The president of the United States is always welcome,” he said in an interview on CNN. “I’m a citizen, he’s my president. He is certainly welcome.”

Trump later confirmed plans to visit Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

Myers, who was hired just over a year ago by the Tree of Life congregation, which numbers a few hundred families, has found himself serving as a spiritual leader to an entire country in shock after the massacre, which left 11 people dead.

At a vigil in Pittsburgh and in a series of television interviews, the rabbi has warned that the attack was aimed at the American ideal of freedom of worship, and at America itself.

He has also reiterated his belief that good will prevail over evil.

He awoke Monday to hundreds of emails from strangers, he told CNN, sent by people of all faiths and from all around the world. He has said the synagogue will not close down or cede any ground to violence. And he has called on politicians to avoid hateful rhetoric.

“My cup overflows with love,” Myers said at the vigil in Pittsburgh on Sunday, according to an account in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “That’s how you defeat hate.”

Myers made the first 911 emergency call Saturday morning when the gunman began his deadly assault. Until two months ago, he rarely carried his cellphone on the Sabbath, when some Jewish people avoid using technology and electronics, he has said in interviews. But at a training session in August, he said, a security expert told him he should start.

“I learned a number of important things from him,” Myers said in an interview Monday on “Good Morning America.” “He said, ‘Rabbi, it’s a different world, and you need to carry it.’ I’m so grateful for his presence, and teaching me.”

The rabbi said that about five minutes after the Saturday service began, at 9:45 a.m., he heard a loud sound in the synagogue lobby on the floor below him. It sounded like a coat rack had fallen, he recalled. But then he heard another loud bang.

“It was apparent to me — instinct — that it was not the sound of a piece of metal falling down,” he said. “It was rapid fire.”

With about 12 people in the sanctuary, Myers said, he yelled for everyone to drop to the ground and stay quiet. He then started to evacuate the congregants to safety, beginning with a handful of people at the front of the sanctuary. There were still eight people in the room, all in the rear.

The gunfire was getting louder. The gunman was moving closer to the sanctuary.

Seven of the eight people were killed, he said, and the eighth was wounded; she is expected to recover.

“There was no way for me to get back,” Myers said on CNN. “I live with that, the sounds that are seared in my brain, for the rest of my life.”

The gunman also killed four others at the synagogue, members of two other congregations who use the same building.

Myers grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and started his career as a teenage soprano in his congregation’s choir, according to The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. When Myers was 15, the cantor at his synagogue had a stroke just before the High Holy Days, and Myers was called to step in and lead the choir.

He has served much of his professional career as a cantor and a Jewish educator in a congregation on Long Island and later in Ventnor City, New Jersey. He sought ordination as a rabbi to improve his job prospects, he told The Chronicle, at a time when American synagogues were consolidating.

One reason he was an appealing candidate when the Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha congregation in Pittsburgh sought a new rabbi was his ability to perform the roles of both rabbi and cantor.

At the vigil Sunday, The Post-Gazette reported, Myers told an audience of more than 2,000 people in the Soldiers & Sailors Hall that when he could not sleep after the attack, he reminded himself of the portion of the 23rd Psalm about one’s cup overflowing.

Then he began singing “El Rachamim,” a funeral lament.