Nearly a year after 11 people were murdered in the Pittsburgh synagogue where he worshiped, Stephen Cohen wrote a letter to the U.S. attorney general. The Justice Department had not yet declared its intent to seek a death sentence in the case, and Mr. Cohen, the co-president of New Light, one of the three congregations that met in the Tree of Life synagogue, wanted to weigh in.
“In consideration of the significant injury to our congregation,” he wrote, “I request that the parties agree to a plea deal in which the perpetrator would accept a sentence of life imprisonment.”
The issue for Mr. Cohen was that pursing a death sentence, rather than taking a plea, would mean a trial and an excruciating revival of the trauma that his fellow congregants had been struggling to overcome. Weeks later, the Justice Department announced it would seek the death penalty, and the trial that has unfolded in a federal courthouse over the past three months has been even more harrowing than he anticipated.
But his view of the issue has changed. “I was wrong,” he said last week. “Whether he gets put to death or not, I leave in the hands of 12 men and women who will make that decision, and God bless them for whatever decision they make. But we have the facts now.”
Over the nearly five years since the deadliest antisemitic attack in the country’s history, the question of justice has loomed, unresolved. Within days, the jury in the federal trial will make a decision that is central to that question of justice: whether Robert Bowers, the man who carried out the attack, should be condemned to death.
Most of the families of those who were killed have maintained that a death sentence would be the just outcome, even if it meant a longer and possibly more agonizing legal process. It is necessary, the families of nine victims said in a letter published last fall in The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, to show that “such violent hatred will not be tolerated on this earth.”
But others have strongly disagreed. Around the time that Mr. Cohen wrote to the attorney general, his rabbi, Jonathan Perlman, sent his own letter, citing passages from the Talmud and urging the government not to pursue “this cruel form of justice.” Miri Rabinowitz, the widow of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, who was killed in the shooting, wrote that seeking death would be a “bitter irony” given her husband’s devotion to “the sanctity of life.” Moreover, these and other letters argued, the trial and appeals process would only torment the survivors and draw attention to the killer.
In Jewish law and tradition, “there is no straightforward, single, unequivocal straightforward answer” about capital punishment, said Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, who analyzed the issue for the international assembly of Conservative Jewish rabbis. Talmudic jurisprudence is strongly averse to the death penalty, said Rabbi Kalmanofsky, who in his analysis wrote that American Jews should “should favor a policy preferring imprisonment to execution in virtually all cases.”
But, he said, Jewish citizens should understand this is ultimately a decision in the hands of a secular justice system. And while rabbinical tradition holds that the death penalty should be extremely rare, he said, it acknowledges “that sometimes there are incredibly exigent circumstances.”
In 1962, Israel did carry out the death sentence of Adolf Eichmann, one of the planners of the Holocaust. But no one has been sentenced to death in Israel since. A central question in the Pittsburgh case is whether Mr. Bowers, whose social media posts were full of genocidal hatred toward Jews — but who, his lawyers argue, has severe mental illness — is one of these extreme cases.
Many in Pittsburgh, even those who typically oppose the death penalty, believe he is.
“I’m actually quite struck by the number of people who have classically taken a fairly liberal approach who have said, ‘But in this case —,’” said Rabbi Danny Schiff, a scholar of Jewish ethics with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. People may be opposed to the death penalty intellectually, he said, but Pittsburgh’s Jewish community has a familial closeness and the reaction to the attack was visceral. Seeking the gunman’s death may not be the right judgment under Jewish law, he said, but it is “the correct emotional response.”
For decades, Linda Hurwitz was a member of Tree of Life, worshiping alongside those who would be killed in the attack. Though she had left the congregation by 2018, she briefly considered returning on the morning of Oct. 27 to hear the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. On that date, 29 years earlier, her 17-year-old daughter was strangled and stabbed to death by a teenage boy she had befriended. Ms. Hurwitz sat through two trials and many hearings as the killer, now 51 and still in prison, made his journey through the justice system. It was agonizing, she said.
But a death sentence was never a possibility and was not something that Ms. Hurwitz would have sought. The murderer was not yet 18, she explained and seemed to have killed out of some tragically misdirected rage. She said the killer at Tree of Life, who was 46 at the time, appeared to act out of a cold, impersonal hatred — more like that of the functionaries in the Nazi death camps where Ms. Hurwitz’s mother and father were held and where members of their family were murdered.
“Someone who has so little value for life is antithetical to Judaism,” she said of Mr. Bowers. “You don’t have a right to live.”
For months now, those who have called for a death sentence and those who have opposed it have sat quietly together in the courtroom gallery, day after day, watching their fellow congregants describe the horror that they endured and learning more about the man who caused it. Many have given their own accounts from the witness stand.
Even for some, like Mr. Cohen, who had been against the trial, the slow but steady functioning of the legal system has been a public validation of private suffering, said Maggie Feinstein, the director of 10.27 Healing Partnership, which provides mental health services to people affected by the attack. “It’s important to know that we are pursuing justice in the way in which the rules were written,” she said. “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue,” she said, quoting the Torah.
But there remains no consensus about where that pursuit of justice should lead.
At sabbath services this month, Rabbi Perlman of New Light preached on the topic of vengeance.
“Does vengeance taste good to one who has been left behind?” he asked. No, he said, we will still grieve the 11 who were killed in the attack, including the three who were worshiping with the rabbi that morning four and a half years earlier. They are now in heaven, he said, and will gain nothing from an act of earthly retribution.
As for the man who had caused all this grief, the rabbi told his congregation, citing the inscription on the graves of Jewish martyrs, “the ever-Present One will avenge their deaths.”
Jon Moss contributed reporting.