Barry Werber talks about the events surrounding the synagogue shooting.
PITTSBURGH — Barry Werber usually attends services Friday night and Sunday morning, but this week was the anniversary of his mother’s death. Jewish tradition is that you say prayer the whole weekend, Werber said.
Werber arrived early Saturday morning at the Tree of Life synagogue, and he and the few others who were already in the downstairs sanctuary were reading their prayer books when he heard a crash. Werber walked toward the stairs.
“I pushed the door open, and I saw a body on the steps coming down to our room,” Werber, 76, told USA TODAY on Monday night. “I have to assume that it was Cecil.”
Cecil Rosenthal and 10 others at the Tree of Life were gunned down on the Sabbath as the shooter yelled, “All Jews must die,” It was the deadliest attack against the Jewish community in U.S. history, the Anti-Defamation League said, and Werber says that Anti-Semitism is alive in the United States.
Many arrived Saturday for a baby-naming ceremony at Tree of Life. Werber saw wine goblets and a bottle of whiskey for the ritual, but he was downstairs with his rabbi, Jonathan Perlman, and a few other members of his congregation. New Light shares a space with Tree of Life, one that Werber said they made their own after moving from a long-time temple.
Werber thought the crash was just the tray of glasses from the ceremony. When he saw the body and realized the crash was gunshots, the rabbi pushed his congregants from the sanctuary into a small, dark storeroom.
Werber said he thinks Perlman was able to exit through a back stairway, but he didn’t know where it was, especially in the dark. He and the other congregants, Carol Black and Melvin “Mel” Wax, remained in the room as Werber called 911.
When the gunshots paused upstairs, Werber said Wax moved toward the door. Werber said he tried to warn him not to open it, but he didn’t want to yell.
Gunshots burst from the sanctuary into the storeroom, and Wax fell back into the room, Werber said.
Then, a pause and darkness. Werber said the door opened. A man with a long gun stepped over Wax’s body. But only a sliver of light made it into the room as the door opened. The shooter didn’t see Werber and Black on the other side of the room, and the door closed again.
Werber has a “dumb phone,” he said, and it didn’t light up even as he had the 911 operator on the line as the shooter was in the same room.
“Meanwhile, I’m doing a hell of a lot of praying and a hell of a lot of hoping that this is over with,” Werber said. He wears his mother’s wedding band next to his own, and said he felt her there in the room with him.
“I felt that her and God were looking after me,” Werber said. “But, I was more frightened than I had ever been in my whole life.”
A SWAT officer eventually came in from behind them. He walked down the back steps, and light flooded the room. He and Black were led up and out of the building, handed off to another officer and seated in a patrol car.
Audio from police scanners detail the horrific scene as a gunman shoots and kills 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Werber is thankful that more people weren’t at the services yet. Had more been in the downstairs sanctuary, they would not have all been able to hide in the storeroom.
But, Werber fears that the Tree of Life tragedy will become just another on the list of mass shootings in the United States. He said he understands and respects the need for the Second Amendment, but wants something to be done related to gun laws. He’s pessimistic.
“We are the episode of today, after the school shootings, after the church bombings, after the terrible things that have been going on in our country. We are the thing of today, and now they’re going to be talking about the thing of tomorrow,” he said.
Now, Werber said he feels unsafe — even in his own home — and isn’t sure how he’ll feel about going in the building and his sanctuary when it opens again. The shooting was targeted and displayed a level on anti-semitism that Werber said he never expected to see in the United States.
His cousins survived concentration camps. His parents fled Europe and Nazism. But, today, Werber said he’s not sure Jewish people have really gotten away from that.
“I’m almost glad that my parents aren’t alive,” Werber said. “This was the land of liberty. This was the land where we could breathe free air, where we could not worry about anything. We were away from oppression. And the Nazis are here again.”
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