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Tree of Life Congregants Recall Rushing to Help During Massacre

Congregants at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue rushed to help fellow worshippers even when they heard a man opening fire inside the building, a court heard on Wednesday.

Survivors of the 2018 massacre at the synagogue shared their testimonies during the second day of trial for shooter Robert Bowers. The 50-year-old Bowers is accused of murdering 11 worshippers, moments after posting an antisemitic conspiracy theory on the extremist-friendly social network Gab. During their Wednesday testimonies, Tree of Life congregants described their faith’s emphasis on helping people in need—a value that appears to have brought the synagogue into Bowers’ crosshairs.

Daniel Leger and Jerry Rabinowitz were inside the synagogue when they heard Bowers open fire, Leger testified on Wednesday. Both men were trained in medicine: Leger as a nurse and Rabinowitz as a doctor.

“We both being trained helpers, we wanted to do something to help,” Leger testified on Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

“So we both moved in the direction of the gunfire, which perhaps was a stupid thing to have done, but that’s what we did.”

Rabinowitz was fatally shot. Leger was shot in the stomach and lay on a staircase, praying. His breath was failing and he recognized that he was dying. He testified on Wednesday that, when a person walked into his narrow line of sight, he saw only their pant leg but knew that he would die without medical assistance.

“I remember thinking either this is a helper or it’s the shooter, either way I have nothing to lose,” Leger testified. He reached out to the person, who was an EMT.

Leger and another congregant, Wendy Kobee, also testified about the synagogue’s outreach work. Leger is a member of Dor Hadash, one of three congregations that worshipped at Tree of Life. Dor Hadash has worked with Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a Jewish aid organization for immigrants. The congregation participated in HIAS’s National Refugee Shabbat shortly before the attack, apparently drawing Bowers’ attention.

Bowers, a prolific author of antisemitic posts on Gab, had taken an interest in HIAS in the run-up to the shooting, invoking it in a conspiracy theory about Jewish people attempting to bring murderous “invaders” into the country. In the days before the attack, he posted a link to a list of synagogues participating in the National Refugee Shabbat, stating that he “appreciated” the document. Then, in the moments before entering Tree of Life, Bowers issued another post, again railing against HIAS and concluding “Screw your optics. I’m going in.”

Kobee, vice president for youth education at Dor Hadash, said that her congregation taught the value of “welcoming the stranger.”

Leger said Dor Hadash believed in helping people in need, regardless of whether they shared a faith.