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Pittsburgh honors synagogue victims through memorials and song

Editor's Note: One of the victims, Rose Mallinger, was incorrectly identified as a Holocaust survivor; she was not.

The man accused of killing 11 people over the weekend at a Pittsburgh synagogue had his first appearance in court. And as funerals for the victims are set to begin, President Trump blames the media for U.S. anger. John Yang joins Amna Nawaz to discuss how the community is coping.

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  • AMNA NAWAZ:

    The shock of Saturday's massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue is still sinking in tonight.

    Earlier, the man accused of killing 11 people had his first court appearance, amid an outpouring of grief and sympathy.

    John Yang begins our coverage.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Today, the makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh grew larger. Passersby placed flowers and paid their respects amid a still-heavy police presence.

    Fund-raising for survivors and victims' families has brought in more than $600,000. Saturday's massacre is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in American history; 46-year-old Robert Bowers is charged with killing 11 worshipers during Sabbath prayer services. Seated in a wheelchair, he made his first appearance in federal court in downtown Pittsburgh today and was assigned a public defender.

    He is being held without bail. He faces 11 state counts of criminal homicide and a 29-count federal complaint, including hate crimes, which could bring the death penalty.

    In the wake of a week of threats and violence, some have pointed to President Trump's rhetoric, which they say has invoked anti-Semitic themes and emboldened white nationalists.

    Even as White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders condemned bigotry today:

  • SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS:

    We all have a duty to confront anti-Semitism in all its forms and everywhere and anywhere it appears. JOHN YANG: The president blamed the media.

  • He said:

    "There is great anger in our country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The fake news media, the true enemy of the people, must stop the open and obvious hostility and report the news accurately and fairly."

    Tomorrow, the president and the first lady are to visit Pittsburgh as funerals for the victims are to begin.

    Among the dead, 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, who had survived the Holocaust, brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, both in their 50s, both with developmental disabilities, and father and grandfather Melvin Wax, who was 88.

    This morning, authorities took the accused shooter from Allegheny General Hospital, where he was treated for gunshot wounds.

    Hospital president Jeffrey Cohen lives across the street from the Tree of Life Synagogue, where he is a member, was married and his children bar and bat mitzvahed.

  • JEFFREY COHEN:

    And as I went outside, there was a police officer walking down the street, and he was yelling at people to get in their houses, there was an active shooter at Tree of Life.

    I'm going, this is odd. And as I stood there watching, I saw the first wave of police come in, and they were huddled behind a brick pillar. And I'm going, this is across from my house. This is surreal.

  • JOHN YANG:

    He quickly learned the shooter was being taken to his hospital.

  • JEFFREY COHEN:

    I talked to one of the nurses that took care of him. And the nurse's father is a rabbi. He came in because he was called in. And he rolled up his sleeves and he took care of him like anybody else that comes here.

    And we have a really simple mission here, certainly as long as I have been here. We're here to take care of sick people.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Yesterday, Cohen felt the need to meet the man who had brought violence to his doorstep.

  • JEFFREY COHEN:

    And he asked me who I was. I said: "I'm Dr. Cohen. I'm the president of the hospital."

    And once again, that yin-yang of the universe, here's the guy that's getting off an ambulance and saying all Jews have to die, and his emergency room physician, his nurse, president of the hospital are all Jews. How's that for irony?

  • JOHN YANG:

    The bullets struck at the heart of the close-knit community in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

  • RABBI JAMES GIBSON:

    It's like tearing cloth so that the threads no longer join one to the other.

  • JOHN YANG:

    James Gibson is senior rabbi at Temple Sinai, just blocks from Tree of Life.

  • RABBI JAMES GIBSON:

    We are deeply embedded in each other's lives.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Although more diverse today, Squirrel Hill still has the feel of the Jewish enclave it has been for more than a century. It's a place where synagogues are familiar landmarks, the grocery store posts the beginning of the weekly Sabbath, and they tell time in Hebrew.

    Cindy Skrzycki, a Polish Catholic, has lived here 18 years. She and her husband, David Shribman, the executive editor of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, raised two daughters here. One is a year away from ordination as a rabbi.

  • CINDY SKRZYCKI:

    It would have been very hard for Natalie (ph) and my older daughter to escape, because their friends — a lot of their friends were Jewish. We lived in Washington a long time. And I don't think we, outside of one or two people, really knew very many Jewish people. You become marinated here pretty fast.

  • JOHN YANG:

    As authorities search for why this attack took place this particular weekend at this particular place, Dr. Cohen sees symptoms in the coarsening of public discourse.

  • JEFFREY COHEN:

    We need to take control of the debate and the civility of the discourse, where it's OK to disagree with people, but you don't have to take it to the point where you shut the other guy up. We have to listen more.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Since, Saturday there have been memorials here and around the world. Sunday evening, the monthly rehearsal of the Pittsburgh Cello Studio Ensemble became an impromptu commemoration.

    Leaders Nicole Myers and Simon Cummings played the melody "Kol Nidre," which traditionally begins services on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement.

  • NICOLE MYERS:

    It's just so soulful and beautiful. And we debated whether or not we should have a rehearsal tonight, the day after these events. And we thought we didn't want to stop making music. We wanted to play for them to show them that we were going to persevere.

  • JOHN YANG:

    For Cummings, born and raised in the area, it had a special meaning: Among the dead was Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, his doctor since childhood.

  • SIMON CUMMINGS:

    Just trying to meditate and think about his life and the other 10 lives, and I feel like music is a big part of our lives and it helps us recover and heal.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Feelings that so many in this community are in search of tonight.

    What happened here has deeply affected people throughout not just this neighborhood, but across Pittsburgh. So many people we talked to this weekend say they don't know yet what recovery is going to look like, but they promise they will bounce back — Amna.

  • AMNA NAWAZ:

    Incredible resolve in that community there, John.

    But tell me about the victims of this attack. When do we expect funerals to begin for them?

  • JOHN YANG:

    Amna, the funerals are going to start tomorrow. Jewish law generally forbids autopsies and generally encourages burial as quickly as possible, usually within about 24 hours.

    But authorities went to the families and asked for permission to perform autopsies, presumably to help in the prosecution. And all the families agreed.

  • AMNA NAWAZ:

    You mentioned the prosecution there, John. What else do we know, if anything, about the shooter?

  • JOHN YANG:

    Not much. He is a guy who apparently didn't leave much of a footprint.

    Reporters have been talking to neighbors. They described him as isolated, socially awkward. They say he lived alone, told some of them he was a truck driver.

    What footprints he did leave appear to be these virulent anti-Semitic comments, most of them left on a Web site called Gab. Gab is a site that critics say is the haven, the last refuge for extremist who've been kicked off other social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, for violating their norms.

    Gab has released a statement condemning the attack, saying they're working with law enforcement authorities investigating this. They also say: "We have been smeared by the mainstream media for defending free expression and individual liberty for all people."

  • AMNA NAWAZ:

    John Yang there for us at the site of the horrific synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

    Thank you, John.

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