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2018 Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting

Lesson Learned from a Deadly Attack on a Place of Worship

black and white image of tree with roots*

An article based on the Safety Member Certification training modules "Active Shooter Response" and "Mass Trauma Emergencies."[1]

From the Bible

And if ye go to war in your land against the enemy that oppresseth you, then ye shall blow an alarm with the trumpets; and ye shall be remembered before the Lord your God, and ye shall be saved from your enemies (Numbers 10:9).

... he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted ... (from Isaiah 61:1).

And went to him, and bound uphis wounds ... (Luke 10:34).


Some incidents of deadly violence at places of worship impact the public consciousness more than others. The 2017 massacre in Sutherland Springs, TX, was especially heart-wrenching for the sheer numbers killed in a small-town church.

Others spiked public awareness of religious and/or racial/ethnic hatred. The shooter at Wedgewood Baptist Church in 1999 hated religion in general and Christianity in particular. The 2015 killings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston were fueled by racial hatred. Then in 2018, the shootings at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue were motivated by a combined religious and ethnic hatred of Jews. There are other bias-motivated killings in houses of worship, but these three are examples of the kinds of bias.[2][3][4][5]


The Tree of Life - Or L'Simcha Congregation was an early Jewish Synagogue in Pittsburgh, dating to 1864. The Tree of Life (Etz Hayim, literally "Living Tree") congregation built the current building in 1953. In 2010 it merged with the Light of Joy (Or L'Simcha). It is a member of Conservative Judaism. Also in 2010, the synagogue began renting space to Dor Hadash (New Generation), a Reconstructionist congregation, then in 2017 to New Light (Or Chadash) another Conservative congregation. From then until the shooting, the three congregations had been holding their Sabbath (Shabbat) services at the same time in the synagogue building. Collectively they are known as the Tree of Life Community.

The Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh has a significant Jewish population, the greatest concentration in the city and the area. Many Jewish European immigrants had settled in Pittsburgh in the 1800s, attracted by industrial jobs and ethnic populations, then the Jewish community attracted more immigrants.

With Pittsburgh being a major city and Squirrel Hill a Jewish neighborhood, this synagogue was a tempting target for an anti-Semitic attacker. Also apparently tempting was light security, a factor in other shootings, such as the 1999 North Valley Jewish Community Center Shooting.[5] Also partially attributable was the area's low crime rate, which made congregations feel safer.

A Violation of the Sabbath

It was 9:45 am on Saturday, October 27, 2018. Members of the three congregations were gathered at the synagogue. The two Conservative congregations were holding Shabbat services, Tree of Life in a main floor chapel and New Light in a lower-floor chapel. The Dor Hadash Congregation was gathering for their 10:00 service in another room.

All seemed well until 9:50 when a pudgy, bearded, middle-aged man walked in the front door. He was armed with an AR-15 and three Glock pistols, and would use all four weapons.

Once he encountered people, he began firing. The first victims were the two greeters, who were brothers. When they had fallen, the shooter went downstairs to the room where the New Light congregation met and continued firing, hitting four persons - others were hiding. These included a Dor Hadash physician who heard shots and came down to treat any wounded.

Then the shooter went up to the chapel where the Tree of Life service was in progress. Attendance was lighter than usual this week, with only about 13 present. Eight were left in the room because the rabbi helped four to get out a side door (a fire exit). These eight were shot, seven fatally. The shooting spree lasted about 20 minutes. More would have exited if the rabbi had realized earlier that the noise he heard was gunfire and not a coat rack falling.

Several calls were made from the synagogue to 911. Police arrived at 9:59, with the shooter beginning to leave. While in the entry, he fired at them, wounding four police officers and two SWAT team members. They wounded him several times. He then went up to the third floor, where he entered a room and hid. It was there that the SWAT team found him when he slivered out, seriously wounded.

The shooter was in custody while medics treated him. It is reported that he told officers, "All Jews should die" for the alleged crime of "attempted genocide" against "my people."

In all, twenty persons were shot, eleven of them dying.

A Hateful Spirit

The shooter was born in a township near Pittsburgh. His family life was troubled. When he was one, his parents divorced. When he was seven, his father committed suicide - this was while awaiting trial for rape. His mother remarried and they moved to Florida. This marriage lasted only a year.

Back in Pennsylvania, they lived with her parents in a Pittsburgh suburb. His mother had health issues, so the grandparents raised him. He dropped out of high school, then began driving trucks.

Personality wise, he rarely interacted with neighbors. His interest was in radical right-wing issues and neo-Nazi positions, basically White supremacy and anti-Semitism. He was known to say, "Heil Hitler." He denied the Holocaust, but believed that there was a "White genocide" conspiracy. His social media posts were radical. By this time he lived in Philadelphia. He drove from there to Pittsburgh for the shooting.


Eleven of the twenty shooting victims died. More would have died, but first responders and unhurt synagogue members treated the wounded, applying what they learned in Stop the Bleed training.

The shootings were not in the main sanctuary, which had a seating capacity of over a thousand - it was not being used the day of the attack - but in the older structures to which the sanctuary was attached. The congregations decided to not use that facility anymore, since it had been desecrated, but to rebuild it with a memorial to those who died there, a museum, and an anti-defamation center. Things of value and the stained glass windows have been removed for now, and demolition of the older structures began on January 19, 2024. The sanctuary will be left standing. The new building will have a modern design with the stained glass windows re-installed. It will also have a more secure entrance. Meanwhile, the congregations are meeting at other synagogues in Pittsburgh, Tree of Life at Rodef Shalom Congregation.*

* Strangely, this sounds like what First Baptist Church in Sutherland did. They built a new church and made the place of the shooting a memorial and a prayer chapel.[2]

The shooter was indicted on federal charges and in 2022 was tried in the United States District Court for Pittsburgh. Early in the trial, the public defender tried to strike a plea deal in exchange for not seeking the death penalty, but the prosecutor refused to consider it. The shooter was convicted on all counts and sentenced to death. He is now at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, awaiting execution, the same place where the Oklahoma City bomber was put to death.

The wave of reaction to the shooting literally spread around the world. Several articles were posted by Israeli news outlets, including the Jerusalem Post. The site was visited by government officials, members of Congress, and the President. Legislatively, it was a mixed reaction, like trying to help, but not wanting to go too far.

Since the new Tree of Life synagogue has not yet been built, we do not know what security measures will be in place. The website for Rodef Shalom (where Tree of Life currently meets) does not say anything about security except for their mask policy from the pandemic. Since synagogues are choice targets for radicals, they would want to keep their security measures confidential. However, news stories do cite an increase of security by Jewish institutions in general. According to an AP news story linked to on the Tree of Life website, the rebuilt synagogue will have "a new, more secure entrance."

Lesson Learned

This lesson is one that needs repeating: Watch the door.

If a place of worship does not have an actual security or safety team, then it the greeters should be trained to watch for problem persons while at the door and equipped to call for help if needed. For example, many Catholic churches now train their ushers and greeters to be, in effect, security and medical response teams. Part of this is learning and practicing lockout and lockdown procedures.

Even places with security teams need to train greeters in how to watch for weapons as well as suspicious behavior. A guest article by Terry Berringer (a security expert) on the Sheepdog Church Security Academy blog tells how to perform bag searches. This is the way many weapons are brought into churches. Also, watch outside. Those who approach the church with weapons in their hands should be seen and be locked out before they can get to the door.[6][7]

Train all congregational leaders (including teachers and activity leaders) on lockdown procedures. If those at the door had sounded an alarm, or others had recognized the sound of gunfire, the shooter would have encountered locked doors inside and/or evacuated rooms.

An added lesson is "Be prepared to treat severe mass trauma casualties." It was this preparation that saved lives at Tree of Life.


While being welcoming, don't leave yourself open to a violent intruder. Take reasonable precautions, such as being watchful and being ready to lock out and lock down.

Training Resources

"Active Shooter Response" and "Mass Trauma Emergencies" are training modules (classes) in the Safety Member Certification program. All Church Safety Teams are urged to have their members trained and certified. There are three training formats: Team Certification (church-hosted classes), Individual Certification (self-paced online instruction), and Online Events (live Zoom Classes).[1]

The Online Events 2023-2024 school year is in session and open to enrollment (the classes relevant to this article are highlighted):





Training Module


Sep 10

Nov 12

Jan 28

Mar 24

Safety Team Fundamentals


Sep 17

Nov 19

Feb 4

Apr 7

Active Shooter Response


Sep 24

Dec 3

Feb 11

Apr 14

Deescalating Disruptive Persons


Oct 1

Dec 10

Feb 18

Apr 21

Protecting Children from Abuse


Oct 8

Dec 17

Feb 25

Apr 28

Basic Use of Force Laws


Oct 15

Jan 7

Mar 3

May 5

Arson and Fire Safety


Oct 22

Jan 14

Mar 10

May 19

Storms and Disasters


Nov 5

Jan 21

Mar 17

Jun 2

Mass Trauma Emergencies

Other training resources are The Church Security Guide article "Church Safety Teams and Active Shooter Training," the Blog articles under the "News" tab on the SDCS training site, videocasts at the Sheepdog Church Security Academy channel on YouTube, and training videos at SDCS affiliate Worship Security Academy.[8][9][10][11]


Sheepdog Church Security Resources

  1. Kris Moloney, "Active Shooter Response," Safety Member Certification, Sheepdog Church Security, © 2020 [].
  2. WGV, "2017 Sutherland Springs Church Shooting," Sheepdog Church Security, July 5, 2022 [].
  3. WGV, "1999 Wedgwood Baptist Church Shooting, Fort Worth, Texas," Sheepdog Church Security, July 5, 2022 [].
  4. WGV, "2015 Emanuel AME Church Shooting," Sheepdog Church Security, April 5, 2022 [].
  5. WGV, "1999 North Valley Jewish Community Center Shooting," Sheepdog Church Security, August 8, 2023 [].
  6. Terry Berringer, "Today we will Dig into Bag Searches," guest article, Sheepdog Articles, Sheepdog Church Security Academy, January 30, 2024 [].
  7. Kris Moloney, Sheepdog Articles, Sheepdog Church Security Academy [].
  8. Kris Moloney, Church Security Guide, Sheepdog Church Security, © 2018 [].
  9. Kris Moloney, "Church Safety Teams and Active Shooter Training," Church Security Guide, Sheepdog Church Security, © 2018 [].
  10. Kris Moloney, Sheepdog Church Security Academy channel, YouTube [].
  11. Sheepdog Church Security affiliate link to Worship Security Association [].

News Accounts

  1. Matthew D. Neal, "Pittsburgh trauma surgeon: 'Stop the Bleed' training saved lives after shooting, but stopping the need must be next," WHYY, October 27, 2018 [].
  2. "Pittsburgh synagogue shooting," Wikipedia ['Simcha_Congregation].
  3. Tree of Life Pittsburgh [].
  4. Campbell Robertson, Christopher Mele, and Sabrina Tavernise, "11 Killed in Synagogue Massacre; Suspect Charged with 29 Counts," New York Times, October 27, 2018 [].
  5. Nicole Chavez, Emanuella Grinberg and Eliott C. McLaughlin, "Pittsburgh synagogue gunman said he wanted all Jews to die, criminal complaint says," CNN, Updated: October 31, 2018 [].
  6. Tom Winter, Dennis Romero and Saphora Smith, "How a deadly shooting unfolded at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh," NBC News, October 28, 2018 []
  7. Ron Kampeas, "11 dead, 6 injured in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting," Jewish Telegraphic Agency, October 27, 2018 [].
  8. Anon, "Pittsburgh synagogue shooting victims included brothers, dentist, physician," CBS News, Updated on: October 29, 2018 [].
  9. Rachel Romac, "The Tree of Life massacre: What happened," The Pitt News, October 27, 2019 [].
  10. Kaelyn Forde, Emily Shapiro, Matt Gutman, and Matt Seyler, "Pittsburgh synagogue shooting: What we know about alleged mass shooter Robert Bowers," ABC News, October 29, 2018 [].
  11. Staff, "Pennsylvania Man Charged with Federal Hate Crimes for Tree Of Life Synagogue Shooting (Robert Bowers Indicted on 44 Counts Including Hate Crimes Resulting in Deaths)," Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of Justice, October 31, 2018 [].
  12. Staff, "Lesson Plan: Deadly Shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue," Anti-Defamation League, October 30, 2018 [].
  13. Staff, "Additional Charges Filed in Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting," U.S. Attorney's Office, Western District of Pennsylvania, January 29, 2019 [].
  14. Keith Murray, "After Action Report and Lessons Learned - Tree of Life Synagogue - Pittsburgh, PA," Tactical and Law Enforcement Medicine Section, American College of Emergency Physicians, May 22, 2019 [].
  15. Adam Z. Tobias (corresponding author), Ronald N. Roth, Leonard S. Weiss, Keith Murray, and Donald M. Yealy, "Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting in Pittsburgh: Preparedness, Prehospital Care, and Lessons Learned," published in Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, The University of California, Irvine, 2020 Mar; 21(2): 374-381 (Published online 2020 Feb 21. doi: 10.5811/westjem.2019.11.42809); accessed at National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health [].
  16. Emily Shapiro, "Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue mass shooter found guilty in federal death penalty trial," ABC News, June 16, 2023 [].
  17. Emily Shapiro, "Pittsburgh synagogue shooter sentenced to death, families open up about 'relief'," ABC News, August 3, 2023 [].
  18. Emily Shapiro, "Pittsburgh synagogue massacre 5 years later: Remembering the 11 victims: The oldest victim was 97 years old," ABC News, October 27, 2023 [].
  19. Ryan Deto, "Pittsburgh synagogue shooting victims honored in Congressional resolution," Trib Live, October 27, 2023 [].