Hate crimes charges filed against suspect in Pittsburgh synagogue attack

Law enforcement officers secure the scene after a mass shooting in Pittsburgh. (AP)

PITTSBURGH — A shooter opened fire during a baby naming ceremony at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday, killing multiple people and wounding six others including four police officers who dashed to the scene, authorities said.

A city official told The Associated Press that 11 people have died in the shooting at Pittsburgh synagogue.

Police said a suspect was in custody after the attack at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

This is the Pennsylvania Driver’s License photo of Pittsburgh synagogue suspect Robert Bowers, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation.

The suspect has been identified as Robert Bowers, 46, of Pennsylvania. Federal prosecutors have charged him with 29 counts of violence and firearms offenses, as well as hate crimes.

The gunman made anti-Semitic statements during the shooting, a law enforcement official said.

Social media postings that are believed to have come from Bowers are a focus of the investigation, a federal law enforcement official told CNN.

Shortly before the shooting, in an account on the Gab social media platform that authorities are investigating, the suspect is believed to have posted he “can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

City officials said the shooting was being investigated as a federal hate crime.

Six were wounded, including the four police officers, said a visibly moved Wendell Hissrich, the Pittsburgh public safety director.

“It is a very horrific crime scene. It was one of the worst that I’ve seen. It is very bad,” Hissrich said.

A stretcher is readied for potential victims in Pittsburgh. (AP)

The attack took place during a baby naming ceremony, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. It was unknown whether the baby was harmed.

The synagogue is located at the intersection of Wilkins and Shady avenues. The tree-lined residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh, is the hub of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.

Until the suspect was taken into custody, the neighborhood and all synagogues in the city were in a lockdown, with people ordered to remain indoors.

President Donald Trump called the shooting “far more devastating than anyone thought,” saying “it’s a terrible thing what’s going on with hate in our country.”

Trump also said the outcome might have been different if the synagogue “had some kind of protection” from an armed guard and suggested that might be a good idea for all churches and synagogues.

Offering a different take, Pennsylvania Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, called the shooting an “absolute tragedy” in a statement that made reference to calls for tighter gun control laws.

“We must all pray and hope for no more loss of life,” Wolf said. “But we have been saying “this one is too many” for far too long. Dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm’s way.”

World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder called the shooting “an attack not just on the Jewish community, but on America as a whole.”

People on the street embrace after a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. (AP)

In 2010, Tree of Life Congregation — founded more than 150 years ago — merged with Or L’Simcha to form Tree of Life Or L’Simcha.

The synagogue is a fortress-like concrete building, its facade punctuated by rows of swirling, modernistic stained-glass windows illustrating the story of creation, the acceptance of God’s law, the “life cycle” and “how human-beings should care for the earth and one another,” according to its website. Among its treasures is a “Holocaust Torah,” rescued from Czechoslovakia.

Its sanctuary can hold up to 1,250 guests.

Jeff Finkelstein of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh said local synagogues have done “lots of training on things like active shooters, and we’ve looked at hardening facilities as much as possible.”

“This should not be happening, period,” he told reporters at the scene. “This should not be happening in a synagogue.”

Just three days before the shooting, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers posted a column on the congregation’s website, noting that people make time to attend funerals, but not for life’s happy occasions.

“There is a story told in the Talmud of a wedding procession and a funeral procession heading along parallel roads, with the roads intersecting,” Myers wrote on Wednesday. “The question asked is: when they meet at the fork, which procession goes first, funeral or wedding? The correct answer is wedding, as the joy of the couple takes precedence. In fact, the funeral procession is to move out of sight so that their joy is not lessened.”

Myers ended his column with words that now seem all too prescient.

“We value joy so much in Judaism that upon taking our leave from a funeral or a shiva house, the customary statement one makes (in Yiddish) is ‘nor oyf simches’ – only for s’machot,” Myers wrote. “While death is inevitable and a part of life, we still take our leave with the best possible blessing, to meet at joyous events. And so I say to you: nor oyf simches!”

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Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo in Washington contributed to this report.