PITTSBURGH – The head of security for Pittsburgh's Jewish community says there has been an “uptick in hate speech” on the internet, but no specific threats, in the early stages of the trial of the man accused of killing 11 worshippers at a synagogue here in 2018.
And Jewish leaders say that while the trial is bringing out the worst of extremists in some dark corners of the web, it's also brought an outpouring of support from the community — ranging from law enforcement agencies helping with security to local food vendors collaborating to bring meals to victims' families during the trial.
Shawn Brokos, director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said officials have monitored “general chatter in support of the defendant ... and his hateful vitriol” on the internet. The materials “would turn anyone's stomach,” she said.
Brokos and others spoke Friday at a news conference at the federation's offices to talk about how the Jewish community has been preparing for the federal trial in the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history. Jury selection began April 24 and is slated to continue at least into next week, followed by further weeks in which jurors will weigh the defendant's guilt and potentially a death sentence.
Pittsburgh synagogues and other institutions have received physical improvements in security and have conducted recent training to prepare for security incidents, Brokos said. No threats have been received, but officials are bracing for the possibility that some white-supremacist groups may show up in support of the defendant.
“We’d much rather be in a proactive stance and out in front of any potential threats," she added.
As the trial moves forward, “we will lean on one another for strength and support, we'll empower one another to live full Jewish lives, but reinforce to one another that we need to remain continually vigilant,” Brokos said.
Counselors from local agencies have been working with those affected since the Oct. 27, 2018, attack at the Tree of Life synagogue, which killed 11 worshippers from three congregations sharing the building that Sabbath morning — Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life.
That counseling continues in such settings as the courthouse and the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where the attack happened.
For many victims' relatives, “this is the first time that they’ve been face-to-face with the defendant, and some of them have expressed reservations and trepidation about what that experience would be like,” said Jordan Golin, president of Jewish Family and Community Services. It has provided counselors in tandem with the 10.27 Healing Partnership, formed to help the community recover after the attack.
Counselors have "done a great job with that,” Golin said. He noted that with the later phases of the trial — determining a verdict and penalty — “the intensity is going to ratchet up.”
Michele Rosenthal, who lost her brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal in the attack, gave thanks to several restaurant and grocery vendors who are cooperating to send meals to the courthouse so that victims' families don't have to rush out and back to court between sessions.
“What I prefer to focus on is the solidarity and kindness that I have felt not only from my friends, but even from complete strangers,” she said. The trial “will be emotionally overwhelming,” she said, but the donations bring comfort. ”It is not just the food, but more importantly, the love and care that has gone in to providing it."
One of the vendors, Gregg Caliguiri, co-owner of Shady Grove restaurant, echoed the thought.
“It's about more than providing food, it's about providing hope,” said Caliguiri. “It's about letting those who would spread fear know we'll be there and we won't be intimidated.”
Robert Bowers, 50, of the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin, is charged with 63 counts in the killings of the 11 worshippers. The charges include 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religion resulting in death and 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death.
Prosecutors say Bowers made antisemitic comments at the scene of the attacks and in earlier online forums.
Most of the juror questioning has focused on candidates’ views on the death penalty.
Bowers’ attorneys already offered a guilty plea in return for a life sentence without parole, but prosecutors refused and are seeking the death penalty, a move most of the victims’ families support.
After three weeks, 59 potential jurors have been deemed eligible to serve, while more than 100 others were dismissed either for personal hardships or for “cause” — such as having overly rigid views for or against the death penalty. Attorneys on each side can make up to 20 peremptory dismissals of jurors — without stating a reason.
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