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‘I saw a synagogue turned into a killing zone’: Hospital president mourns Pittsburgh shooting

To Allegheny General Hospital President Jeffrey Cohen, and to many others in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, the Tree of Life Synagogue is home.

Cohen has lived across the street from the Tree of Life for 25 years, is a member of the congregation and married his wife Ellen there. It was where his kids attended school and completed their bar mitzvahs.

On Saturday, when a man shot and killed 11 congregants at services, “I saw a synagogue turned into a killing zone. Yes we are safe, but no we are not OK,” Cohen wrote in a letter to his staff, who treated victims of the shooting, as well as the shooter.

“Words matter as they lead to deeds — both good and bad. Our political and daily discourse is full of loud and hurtful words not always understanding their unintended impact,” Cohen said, calling on leaders to unite people behind the work of the light — the good — rather than the bad.

Read the full text of Cohen’s letter below, and watch his interview with the PBS NewsHour here.

I have received many messages, emails and phone calls from people checking on my family and me in the last 24 hours. Thank you for your thoughts, prayers and inquiries – we are fine physically but shaken by what transpired. Best to tell you what happened and then provide some context.

I was working in my study Saturday morning with my daughter and we heard a series of noises. Paige asked what they were and I replied it must have been something falling off a wall downstairs. A few minutes later she noted a lot of police cars in front of our house which is caddy corner to Tree of Life. Honestly, we moved here 25 years ago so as not to have to do car pool for Hebrew school. My kids caught the bus to school in front of Tree of Life. This is our home. Shortly after that, she yelled to me to come down stairs … now. The immediate information we got was that there may be a shooting at the Tree. My wife, Ellen, was in tears as her mother usually attends services there on Saturday. She found her at home and was relieved but I went outside to see what was going on.

As I went outside a policeman was walking down the already cordoned off street. He yelled at me to get inside as there was an active shooter at Tree. As I watched him walk down the middle of the street I heard the same noise that I had heard in the house. This time it was a lot of pops which were gun shots. I witnessed about 6 police officers run toward the Tree and huddle behind a brick pillar. They were trying to approach the Tree with hand guns and assault rifles. They didn’t back down – they kept moving toward it. I went back inside to make sure Ellen and Paige were ok but came back out 10 minutes later. The news was starting to break about the shooting.

An EMS supervisor had pulled into our driveway and I went out and stood with him. If I could have been of help to someone I thought it was important I do so. We stood together watching the events unfold while listening to the radio as to what was transpiring. I watched a small army of SWAT officers assemble. During this Paul Porter and Duke called and texted me to make sure we were ok. I knew a city wide mass casualty event had been initiated from EMS radio and thought it best to send info to Paul and Duke as to what was going on so as to be prepared. Initially 4 dead and 11 wounded. This changed quickly for the worse. I realized what the popping noise had created. My phone was blowing up from others checking on us who know where we live. I tried to answer as many as I could. I kept Paul informed as to the situation and at the same time let him know that Mercy and Presbyterian where getting the injured police. AGH was getting the shooter as well as the extent of injuries. Truth was there wasn’t a lot for me to do.

The situation started to stabilize after about 2 hours and the SWAT team started to move back from the Tree. They were visibly grey, somber and shaken. Not a lot of idle chatter indicating this was really bad. The assembled world was around the corner and at times we were watching the world watch us on TV. CNN was doing a realtime broadcast from the corner of Wilkins and Murray. The background was the hill in front of our house. I commented to my wife that the plants looked pretty good. She was flattered.

As the situation started to unwind, I went and talked w a few people. I saw Bill Pedutto standing across from the Tree. I told him of the incredible bravery of the original police officer who was walking down the middle of the street yelling at people to get inside. In my mind, he is a hero who in the face of active shooting was trying to organize chaos/evil and protect and help others even at his own risk. His name is known to me and I will visit him and tell him of my gratitude. He told me of another event today at a house of worship which may be under threat and how they were preparing for it. I commented to him that we are better than this — same words Paul Porter told me while checking on me earlier in the day.

I was proud of the AGH team who organized, assembled and treated the shooter. They texts coming from everyone were measured and said, I am here or coming to help. No one asked questions of his politics, race, background but merely took care of him. One of the nurses who did so is a congregant at the Tree and both he and I know some of the people executed. Many people reached out to me to make sure I was OK. What struck me was they were white, black, Muslim, Christian, brown, atheists, Democrats, Republicans, etc. They all came together for the right reasons and were checking on me and my family. I received notes from my friends and colleagues at ChemImage. We work in this field of threat detection and I thought how ironic when the Bomb Squad put up a microwave cordon outside of the Tree to assure that a cell phone didn’t trigger IEDs that may have been planted. Our purpose at ChemImage is to make the world healthier and safer. What a day! Messages from overseas, around the country and across the street.

There is more but this basically tells the story. I have to admit I broke down afterwards thinking about what had happened. I can not tell you why it happened. However, I come back to some thoughts to put it in perspective. The first chapter of the Bible, Genesis, talks about light and dark, which to me is a metaphor for life. Good and evil, order and chaos, life and death – the ying and yang of existence. I saw it on Saturday – all of it. I saw evil up front and bravery to counterbalance it. I saw pain inflicted on a population of Jews who were celebrating a bar mitzvah and/or a baby’s naming. I saw healthcare workers reassemble people’s physical being after the purposeful action of someone to take their lives. I saw empathy from people around my universe reaching out to let us know they were thinking/praying for us that we were safe. I saw a synagogue turned into a killing zone. Yes we are safe, but no we are not OK.

I thank all of you for your concern and the good work you do each day. Early this A.M. I awoke and somehow was thinking of the Mother Emanuel shooting in Charleston. At the end of the ordeal, the congregation collectively confronted the killer and said we forgive you. This has stayed with me since it occurred. It may be the same for the Tree as well as the people of our country to forgive each other. Words matter as they lead to deeds — both good and bad. Our political and daily discourse is full of loud and hurtful words not always understanding their unintended impact. The deeds are not a reflection of one person’s words but of a lot of people’s thoughts and fears. It is time for us to forgive each other and get on with the work of light. I am fortunate to have a purpose in protecting that light. I believe it is time for leaders to show us the way to that light which is why I am writing this message.

Thank you all for your concern and well wishes. We will get through this and unfortunately other episodes like this. Be kind to each other. In the words of someone who lived around the corner from Tree, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

JKC

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