An open door spelled death for Jews at prayer

The Synagogue is normally locked during the week, but not on the Sabbath.

By Associated Press and World Israel News Staff

During the week, anyone who wanted to get inside Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue had to ring the doorbell and be granted entry by staff because the front door was kept locked. Not so on Saturday — the Jewish Sabbath — when the building was open for worship.

The building is normally locked during the week, and there are security cameras, said a former rabbi at the synagogue, Chuck Diamond. “But on Sabbath it’s an open door,” he said.

A gunman who had expressed hatred of Jews exploited that vulnerability, so common in so many houses of worship across the country, in a singularly horrific way.

Armed with a rifle and three handguns, Robert Bowers walked inside the synagogue during Saturday morning worship and began shooting, killing 11 and wounding six.

It was the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, according to the leader of the Anti-Defamation League.

The shooting happened during a baby-naming.

Tree of Life’s past president Michael Eisenberg told Pittsburgh’s KDKA-TV that the synagogue had started working to improve security.

He said three congregations were meeting at the same time, totaling about 100 people, during the shooting. They were in the main part of the building, the basement and the rabbi’s study room. Eisenberg was on his way to service when he saw police pouring into the area.

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The 46-year-old suspected gunman, Robert Bowers, traded gunfire with police and was shot multiple times but survived. Bowers finally surrendered and was taken into custody.

He was charged late Saturday with 29 federal counts, including weapons offenses and hate crimes. Law enforcement officials planned to discuss the massacre at a news conference Sunday morning.

The Tree of Life synagogue is located in the Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, the heart of the Jewish community.

As light rain fell on Saturday night, hundreds gathered for a candle-light vigil outside the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.

“We’ll be dealing with this for months and years,” said State Rep. Dan Frankel, who has represented the area that includes Squirrel Hill for some 20 years and was near the synagogue at the time of the shooting. “It leaves an indelible mark.”

“It’s tragic. It’s surreal,” said Rabbi Amy Bardack, who was attending services at nearby Beth Shalom synagogue, at the time of the shooting.