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Attacked Jewish congregation responds to neo-Nazi gunman: 'Many of us, frankly, feel great pity for this man'

Attacked Jewish congregation responds to neo-Nazi gunman: 'Many of us, frankly, feel great pity for this man'
People stand in front of a memorial on Sunday outside of the Tree of Life Synagogue after a shooting there the day before left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)

A year and a half ago, before becoming the target of the deadliest attack on Jewish people in U.S. history, the Dor Hadash congregation in Pittsburgh’s historic Squirrel Hill neighborhood came together and made a well-meaning decision.

The lay-led Reconstructionist Judaism congregation of about 150 families, whose progressive-leaning members take turns leading services at their synagogue, determined that one of its priorities would be to support immigration and refugee issues.

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So the congregation partnered with HIAS, a Jewish-founded nonprofit that helps resettle refugees from around the world.

Dor Hadash “stands for diversity, inclusion … for LGBT rights, we have leaders from the LGBT community, we have mixed marriages, we have people of color in the congregation … you get the picture,” Carolyn Ban, a 75-year-old retired professor who chairs the congregation’s social-justice committee, said in a phone interview Sunday. “This is a very socially engaged congregation.”

Ban, who led the congregation’s Shabbat for refugees in partnership with HIAS this month, was at her Squirrel Hill home Saturday morning, shortly before Dor Hadash’s services were set to begin, when she got an email from a Muslim friend in one of her interfaith discussion groups.

“What’s happening at Dor Hadash?” her friend wrote. “There is an active shooter alert in the neighborhood.”

A gunman armed with an AR-15 and three handguns, who had shared neo-Nazi posts on social media, had burst into their synagogue, which is also shared by two conservative Jewish congregations, and opened fired as the groups’ services were getting underway, killing 11 people.

It does not seem to have been a random attack. On Oct. 10, the shooting suspect, Robert Bowers, of Pittsburgh, had posted a list of HIAS’ partners on social media, which included Dor Hadash. Then, in the moments before the shooting, Bowers posted again, writing that “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people” — suggesting that the Dor Hadash congregation may have been his specific alleged target due to its refugee advocacy work.

One of the Dor Hadash members, Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, who was helping set up for the morning’s services, was killed, and another member, Dan Leger, was wounded, Ban said.

Both men had dedicated their lives to helping others. Rabinowitz was a primary-care physician and Leger is a hospital chaplain, Ban said. Leger had been in charge of the congregation’s “loving kindness” committee and was often responsible for weddings, funerals and helping hospitalized members.

“Now we’ll be helping him,” Ban said.

Ban’s voice began to catch and grow unsteady as she discussed the gunman at the synagogue — and his possible motive of attacking Dor Hadash for its support for immigrants and refugees.

“I’m very proud of the work we do … we have no second thoughts about that,” Ban said. “Many of us, frankly, feel great pity for this man, because he must have been in terrible pain to do such a thing.”

Ban’s voice broke, and on the phone, she fell silent for a few seconds.

“Really, that’s the conversations I’ve been having today with people.”

She thought President Trump’s suggestion that an armed guard could have prevented the massacre was wrong. She pointed out that the gunman came in with an AR-15. He wounded four police officers before he was captured.

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“An armed guard would have been able to do nothing,” Ban said. “The other thing is, this does not change my strong opposition to the death penalty, which would accomplish nothing and be counter to our values.”

The other priority that Dor Hadash had singled out for its advocacy a year and a half ago was criminal justice reform.

But it’s too early to say what the congregation’s official collective, long-term response to the shooting will be, Ban said. A local church has donated space for the congregation to meet.

“We welcome anybody to join our congregation who shares a commitment to social justice and social action and who wants to be part of a caring, loving community,” Ban said.

Dor Hadash may have come under attack, but its doors remain very much open.

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