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The Scene of the Crime

A survivor of the Pittsburgh massacre returns to the synagogue where the shooting took place

Mark Oppenheimer
October 05, 2021
Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

On Tuesday, the day that President Trump visited Tree of Life, Daniel Leger was in the hospital for the fourth day in a row. He was lying in bed, a breathing tube down his throat. He was with his wife, Ellen; his two grown sons, Noah, who was forty-five, and Jake, forty-two, as well as Noah’s wife, Chris. His ex-wife, Jo, had been in and out and may have been there this day—he couldn’t remember for sure. His congregation, Dor Hadash, was praying for him. He had been through multiple surgeries and was in stable condition. It was time, his doctors thought, to remove the tube. After the slow process of extubation was completed, Leger immediately tried to speak. “His voice is all craggly and scraggly,” said Ellen, “and I hear him say argh argh argh. And I can’t understand. And then I understand—he’s saying the Sh’ma”—the central prayer of Judaism, attesting to the singularity of God. Leger gasped for more air and then, looking at his family around him, said, “I love you all so much.” And then he said something that showed that he knew exactly what had happened to him. He said, “May God forgive him.” “Then I knew,” Ellen said, “that he was completely intact, because that is completely his thinking. That is who he is.”

Leger was released from the hospital on November 26, 2018, almost a month to the day after he had been shot in the abdomen and pelvis and nearly bled to death, sprawled on a staircase at Tree of Life. Leger felt ready to get back to his reading, his cello, his dogs and cats, and, in good time, his job as a nurse and hospital chaplain. His doctors agreed that he was ready to resume life at home.

The weeks ahead were not easy. Before the shooting, Leger had been a seventy-year-old who didn’t feel seventy, but now, for the first time in his life, he really felt his age, and his fund of energy, always limitless, was now frustratingly finite. He was napping all the time. It would be a while, he realized, before he could return to work. In his first couple of months at home, it was all he could do to walk the dogs or get to the supermarket.

And when he went to the supermarket, he faced an unexpected challenge: his newfound celebrity. Squirrel Hill, already a small village where an old-timer couldn’t take a promenade or shop for provisions without getting waylaid for gossip or a hug, was now a fishbowl, with eyes widening at the sight of someone whose ability to walk upright again seemed like proof of God himself. “For those people who are seeing you for the first time, it’s like they want to relive it all over again, and it’s like a miracle to see you and to hug you,” Ellen said to Dan five months after the shooting, when I was sitting with both of them at their home. “And you can’t squelch that, because that’s a person’s real feelings. They’re really genuinely so touched.”

Leger got it—as a chaplain by profession, he was used to standing by quietly, listening, absorbing other people’s pain, hearing things he had heard many times before. But just the same, he got tired. “The attention I would get needed to be managed, and that took a whole other measure of energy that was in short supply,” he said. Walking around Squirrel Hill, knowing that every attempt to buy a loaf of bread could end in watching an old friend dissolve into tears, “has been both a really wonderfully comforting phenomenon, and at times a very deenergizing phenomenon.”

Overall, of course, the outpouring of love made things better, not worse. In his work, Leger had nursed or comforted thousands of his fellow Pittsburghers, and many of them were eager to return the favor: his box of get-well cards was overflowing. Old friends wrote from out of state, strangers wrote from abroad. Members of Dor Hadash checked in constantly, and they left meals and fresh-baked challahs at his and Ellen’s door. But even with a community of hundreds or more rooting for him, Leger was suffering, and not just physically. For all his faith, for all his capacity for forgiveness, he had been shot, and badly wounded, in an attack that had killed eleven people, including one of his best friends. He knew that even after the challahs stopped coming, he would not be all better; his recovery would not be a straight path. But very early on, almost immediately after he got out of the hospital, he had an idea for something he could do to help himself along. He had to go back to the scene of the crime.

After being shot, Leger had fallen onto a flight of stairs and was left facing a wall. He felt fortunate that his hearing aids had not fallen out, else he would have been unable to hear what was going on around him. As it was, he could hear the awful racket, although he could see none of it. His memories had a nightmarish quality but were vague. He needed to see the place, touch it—“verify that reality,” he said. It had to become real for him, so that he could move on. He called the FBI, and the agent who had interviewed him in the hospital agreed to take him back inside the building. So on January 22, 2019, “a snowy day in January,” Leger and Ellen met up with the FBI agent at Tree of Life.

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

“The first place I needed to go was the stairs where I had been lying, and show Ellen, and see what it looked like,” Leger said. He looked up and down the stairwell, then at the stairwell on the other side of the wall he had been facing, a parallel set of stairs that leads down to the area where the New Light congregation prayed. As he looked at the walls above the stairs, he thought, “My God, the place was basically destroyed from gunfire—the walls had holes in them, the ceiling had holes in it. There were places cleaned with a bleaching agent, where there must have been blood on the floors. It was clear the building itself was so damaged, so desanctified, so desecrated.” From the stairwells, he headed toward the Tree of Life congregation’s chapel but stopped near the door.“ I went up to the entrance to the chapel and looked in, but I didn’t want to walk around in there a lot. My ability to get around was limited. I had a cane.”

But he had seen more than enough. “The sanctuary itself had been desecrated that way, too.” Some pews had been removed and were stacked in the hall behind him, so that the blood could be washed off them. “There were gaps in the chapel where people had been killed.” The holy society had cleaned the floors where the pews had been.

Leger went back to the stairs and descended, carefully, using his cane. He wanted to see where the New Light members had been killed.

He walked into the kitchen, where the shooter had found Dan Stein and Richard Gottfried. “I could see so easily that there was nowhere to hide in that kitchen, nowhere for Richard and Dan to conceal themselves,” he said. “If somebody walked in there with a rifle, they were just sitting ducks.” He saw spots where the floor had been bleached, and he understood what that meant. He walked out of the kitchen and into the small New Light chapel. He walked past the bimah and into the closet where Barry Werber, Carol Black, and Melvin Wax had hidden. He thought, in particular, of Mel, who like him was hard of hearing. In his deafness, Wax had thought the shooting was over and had opened the storeroom door, which is how the shooter found him. “Remembering Mel and his pretty profound hearing loss, and imagining him trying to figure out what was going on, and opening the door to try to figure out what was happening” Leger trailed off.

He walked back upstairs and sat down on a bench in the lobby. He looked up at one of the doors to the outside and saw that it had bullet damage. The FBI agent walked over and handed Leger his overcoat and prayer shawl; he’d had them with him the morning of the shooting and had never gotten them back. They had both been cleaned. He was especially glad to see his prayer shawl again. He and Ellen had been married underneath it; it had been strung between poles to make the top of his wedding canopy. The FBI agent handed him a box and said, “Your shoes are in here.” Leger was repulsed. “I said, ‘Don’t open that, I don’t want them. You can do whatever you want with them.’ I had this awareness that my feet were on the stairs below me, my head was at the top, and it seemed extremely likely to me that those shoes had been full of blood. I didn’t want to look at them, I didn’t want to have anything to do with them. In retrospect, it was a bizarre reaction.”

The FBI agent walked over and handed Leger his overcoat and prayer shawl; he’d had them with him the morning of the shooting and had never gotten them back. They had both been cleaned. He was especially glad to see his prayer shawl again. He and Ellen had been married underneath it; it had been strung between poles to make the top of his wedding canopy.

He handed the box back to the FBI agent and sat on the bench with Ellen. The agent asked him if there was anything else she could do. Leger told her that she had done enough, that she had helped him do what he had come to do. “I remember getting up and walking out the door with Ellen, and this incredible sense of—I don’t know the right word—liberation is a word that comes to me. A sense that a burden had been lifted from me, that my shoulders felt lighter, and I could walk out of that place and not have this sense that it had power over me. And feeling confident that in future days, when I would pass it in the car, or walking in the neighborhood, as much as the memories were always going to be powerful, I wouldn’t have the questions of Gee, what’s it really like in there now? ... It was emotional. I remember crying, I remember Ellen supporting me. We were both pretty teary. We went home, had some lunch. I remember taking a nap.”

Ten weeks later, on April 7, 2019, Leger walked from his house to the Jewish Community Center, where he had agreed to take part in “Parkland to Pittsburgh,” a town hall meeting featuring survivors of both the Parkland and the Tree of Life massacres. It was cosponsored by WTAE, the local ABC television station, two of whose reporters served as the evening’s moderators. Leger sat onstage with eight other guests, including a teacher and a student from Parkland and Pittsburgh’s mayor, Bill Peduto. The room was packed.

The first question of the night went to Leger, who looked a little shrunken and not entirely happy to be there. He wore a corduroy blazer and, on his head, a teal blue yarmulke with a colorful border. He clasped his hands as he spoke. Some of the survivors of that day refrained from speaking to the public, but others decided it was their duty. Leger was among the dutiful.

“Since this is your first time talking about what happened on October 27, can you tell us what you’re comfortable in discussing about what happened to you that day?” WTAE’s Mike Clark asked Leger.

“I remember many things from that day,” Leger replied, going on to talk about his love for Shabbat, its “juxtaposition with the awfulness of what ensued.” He talked about preparing for services with Jerry Rabinowitz and another Dor Hadash congregant, Martin Gaynor, then hearing the gunshots. He spoke of his and Jerry’s instinct, as a doctor and a nurse, to rush to help others. “We probably went in exactly the wrong direction,” he said. “Jerry’s gone. I’m here.”

Leger’s raw, affecting story was the highlight of the evening, which was edited and packaged as a one-hour special, aired two nights later on WTAE. Most of the hour was not particularly illuminating. The narration over the video montage that opened the hour was sickly sweet, in the way of local TV news when it decides to serve its community: “Countless elements of life can divide us and do ... but if we pause ... and listen ... we’ll remember the one thing that supersedes all our differences—we’re all human. On Pittsburgh’s darkest day last October, we saw the bonds of community grow stronger—and the power of love win.”

During the panel discussion, Clark, the moderator, kept reaching for uplifting lessons; it seemed very important to him, for example, that the Pittsburgh survivors and Parkland survivors be seen as having bonded closely, although they had spent only a couple hours together. He asked Leger to “talk about how important it was for you and Andrea [Wedner, another survivor] to meet with our new friends from Parkland,” a question Leger sidestepped, speaking instead about how good it had been to get closer to Andrea and her husband, Ron.

Near the end of the event, WTAE’s Shannon Perrine, walking through the audience with a microphone, announced that there was time for “one more question,” and she introduced Barry Werber. Many in the room knew that Werber was one of the eleven Tree of Life survivors. He was standing next to Perrine wearing a stronger than hate/Steelers T-shirt and his Air Force veteran’s cap. As he began to speak into her mic, it was as if the evening had at last found its purpose.“ My question is specifically for Daniel, [and] for Ivy,” he said—Ivy being Parkland teacher Ivy Schamis, sitting onstage next to Leger. “How do you get by being reminded day in and day out—newspapers, television, radio, sleep—of the horror you went through? I’ve had professional treatment, I’ve had friends commiserate with me. But no one knows the feeling unless you have gone through it.” Werber’s voice cracked, and he bit his lower lip, which was trembling. “How do you do that? That’s my question.” He was speaking louder now, as if he were demanding answers. “How do you do that? How do you feel comfortable in a crowd? How do you feel comfortable going into your house of worship, Daniel? How do you feel comfortable going into a movie theater? How do you stop looking for the first exit? How do you stop looking for security? How do you go through that? I’ve tried. I’ve talked to people. I’ve talked to professionals, as I said before. But I can’t find out from a fellow survivor how they do it. The people that I know that have survived, or relatives of those that have died, don’t really want to talk about it. How do you get through it?”

Barry Werber, right, with Pittsburgh police officer Mike Smidga, who was hit by gunfire at Tree of Life, 2019
Barry Werber, right, with Pittsburgh police officer Mike Smidga, who was hit by gunfire at Tree of Life, 2019Photo: Adam Reinherz, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle

When Werber began, Leger was not sure who this man in the audience was, speaking through such obvious pain. Since October 27, both men had been invited to attend a victims’ grief group, organized by the Center for Victims—the same local nonprofit that provided the “canine advocates” for comfort in the days after the shooting—but while both attended sporadically, they had never crossed paths there. It seems likely that they had nodded at each other at some point, maybe exchanged pleasantries at Tree of Life on a Shabbat morning, but if so, Leger had no recollection. “I didn’t know Barry at all,” Leger later said. But Werber knew who Leger was, and as he spoke, it dawned on Leger who he was, and what the two men had in common. He wanted to give Werber a good answer, one that would help him get past his pain, to the place where Leger felt that he had arrived. And as he began to formulate what he would say, how he would answer Werber’s desperate questions, he realized for the first time just how much the visit back to Tree of Life, three months earlier, had mattered.

“I am blessed with a wonderful wife,” Leger said. “She is my rock. And one of the things that we did together was to go back into the building with the FBI. And it was really important to do that, and to be able to not be carried out this time, but to walk out. And to see the place where I was, to verify that reality. To see the place where eleven of my friends were murdered. To be able to have someone stand by me during that, and to be able to walk out and together know that this place no longer has power over me.”

“When he said going back into the building had helped him, I thought to myself, I don’t want this shooter to have any strings on me. I’m not his puppet,” Barry Werber said sometime later. “So I made arrangements.” When he got home, he sent an email to Janet Cohen, the wife “and right-handperson,” as Werber put it, of New Light’s co-president, asking if she could help get him inside the Tree of Life building. On April 10 she wrote back saying that she was working to get him access, but in the meantime he should think about whom he might want to accompany him back inside. “Barry, tomorrow I’ll be in a meeting with people who can work to arrange your visit to the building,” she wrote. “Do you want to see if a therapist can come with you? Is there someone you want me to ask, or do you want to talk to a therapist about this?”

‘Going into the building was surreal, with the bullet holes and some broken glass in the lobby.’

Barry replied that he would ask his psychologist, Tim Murphy, but he was worried that Murphy would be unable to attend, as his granddaughter was being treated for cancer in New York City. He looped Murphy into the email thread, and that night, at 11:55 p.m., his doctor wrote back. “I will go with you.”

On Wednesday, April 17, Werber and his wife, Brenda, met up with Murphy at Jewish Family and Community Services, and from there they drove the short distance to Tree of Life. Outside the building, they were met by Alan Hausman, the Tree of Life board member who took the lead on security matters. He had a key.

Werber is a lively little man. He has a little brush moustache, wears little hearing aids, and lives in a little house in a little East End neighborhood that most of the Jews left long ago. Inside his home, hanging on the glass doors of his china cabinet, there is a dog-bone-shaped trinket on which is written A SPOILED ROTTEN DACHSHUND LIVES HERE. The décor is a mix of dog humor—elsewhere in the house, a cartoon is captioned: THE MORE PEOPLE I MEET, THE MORE I LIKE MY DOG—and Pittsburgh sports memorabilia. Werber is the kind of man who fights adversity with humor: his wife, Brenda, was battling cancer, so he wore on his polo shirt a green pin that said, in white letters, I HATE CANCER. But he reverted to a different tone—reflective, somber, tremulous—when he described that visit.

“Going into the building was surreal, with the bullet holes and some broken glass in the lobby,” Werber said. “I walked around there for a little while, and they said, ‘Do you want to go down to your sanctuary?’” The sanctuary was where he had fled to the storage closet at the front of the room. “And I said okay. They didn’t want to rush me.” They asked if he wanted to take the elevator instead of the stairs, but Werber recoiled at the idea.“ If I could not walk down those steps, then part of the reason for being there was pointless,” he said. It was at those steps that he’d had “the first inkling” of what was happening that morning, “as that is where we saw the body of Cecil Rosenthal, of blessed memory, and realized the danger we were in.”

Werber sat down, gathered his resolve, then got up and went to the top of the stairwell. “It was tough, but I walked down the steps,” he said. Hausman, from Tree of Life, and Murphy, Werber’s psychologist, walked with him, but Brenda, who has trouble with stairs, stayed behind. And from the bottom of the steps, he walked into New Light’s small chapel, and he placed on the bimah a photograph that he had taken in 2017, of Richard Gottfried carrying one of New Light’s Torah scrolls into the Tree of Life building, during the ceremonial parade when the congregation first moved in. “I said a blessing. And I looked around the room. The room, of course, was in total disarray. The chairs were nowhere like they had been.”

From the bimah, he walked with Hausman and Murphy toward the storage closet where he had hidden.“ I looked around a little bit, and then I guess I said, ‘Can I go into the storeroom?’” Hausman told him that he could. He walked into the room, and Hausman turned the light on—it was the first time Werber had seen the room in the light. He was stunned at how small it was. He had in mind a depth of about twenty or thirty feet. Instead, he realized that, crouching in the dark closet, he could not have been more than ten feet from the shooter, and probably less. “That shook me up.”

After leaving the storage room, the three men walked into the kitchen, where Stein and Gottfried had been killed. “That room also was a mess,” Werber said. “After that, we went back upstairs, rejoined my wife, and left the building.”

Excerpted from Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood by Mark Oppenheimer. Copyright © 2021 by Mark Oppenheimer. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.