The film, “A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting,” opens with a long shot of the Squirrel Hill synagogue and the sustained wail of a shofar, a ram’s horn, that is a symbolic call to action. News clips of the horrifying scene follow with voice-overs of emergency responders:
“We have an active shooter in the building.”
“Every available unit in the city needs to get here now.”
“Suspect talks about … all these Jews need to die.”
“I heard this sound, and I turned around to see what the sound was,” says Tree of Life member Joe Charny in the film, “and there was the man with the gun.”
Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz and nurse Dan Leger instinctively wanted to help and ran in the direction of the gunfire and both were shot. Only Leger survived, although lying in the stairwell bleeding, he didn’t think he would. He describes how he felt, unafraid and so grateful for his life. “All of a sudden,” he says, “I see a camouflaged pant leg on the stairs next to me. And I grabbed the pant leg. It was a paramedic. And he said, ‘This one’s alive.’”
The many stories of the 11 people who died that day, the 11 who survived, and the community that rallied in the aftermath, are captured in the powerful and moving documentary by director Trish Adlesic. The film airs on Wednesday, October 26 at 9 p.m. on HBO and can be streamed on HBO Max.
Adlesic was in her childhood home in Pittsburgh visiting her dad at the time of the shooting. The filmmaker, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her work as a producer on “Gasland” (2010) and won an Emmy for the investigative documentary called “I Am Evidence,” stayed here off and on for nearly two and a half years to complete the film.
The story unfolds from the perspective of survivors and families, with intimate interviews and soul-baring discussions.
The director got to know the families well over her time in Pittsburgh. “It has been the honor of my life to bear witness to your stories and I hold them sacred,” said Adlesic at the HBO premiere in New York on Oct. 20.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers and many of those featured in the film attended the premiere, and Broadway superstar Idina Menzel, who wrote a song for the film called “Tree of Life,” was also present. The executive producers include Pittsburgh area natives Michael Keaton, Mark Cuban and Billy Porter. “A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting” was one of 12 films chosen for the prestigious DOC NYC film festival last November.
The families are clearly at the center of the film.
“They are the only ones I felt should tell the story, “says Adlesic. The shooter, Robert Bowers, is only mentioned briefly once, but there is a longer segment focused on the hate movement in the U.S. And there is a tense scene with President and Melania Trump visiting the streetside memorial amid strong protests.
In one especially moving segment in the documentary, Adlesic talks to the sisters and parents of victims David and Cecil Rosenthal, who had lifelong learning disabilities. “Their mental capacities were on par with 5- or 6-year-olds,” says their mom, Joy Rosenthal.
They were active in the synagogue, carrying the Torah, which is an honor, says their sister, Michele. “I don’t know two people who were happier living the life they had,” she says.
The family was always protective of them but didn’t realize until after their deaths how much the men meant to the Squirrel Hill community. A flower shop owner and a young woman who works there talked fondly about how Cecil would press his face against the glass door before ducking into the shop almost daily to say hi. “Hello, beautiful ladies!”
David, who always wanted to be a fireman, would often visit Engine 18 on Northumberland in Squirrel Hill, where he had many friends. They knew him well.
“They had a whole other family out there who took care of them,” says Michele.
Pittsburgh responded to the worst antisemitic attack in the history of our country with a great outpouring of love and compassion and resolve. Our community is a major focus of the film.
Wasi Mohamed rallied the Muslim community and others to raise more than $250,000 so no family had to bear the cost of a funeral or medical expenses.
“I think a lot of people were surprised to see the Muslim community of all communities step up, and help the Jewish community,” he says. “But our religions are very similar … and our burials are very similar. I knew that Ralph Schugar Funeral Home is where people go so I called Ralph Shugar and said hey, I’m from the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. We’ll raise enough money to cover every single funeral no matter what. Don’t send anybody a bill.”
“We are stronger than hate” served as a rallying cry, from the crowds that took to the streets to the moving community service at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum.
At the end of the film, the shofar — which is traditionally used at the start of battles and in religious ceremonies — reappears. As at the beginning of the film, it is in the hands of Audrey Glickman. She is shown in Philadelphia playing with the orchestra in Hannibal Lokumbe’s opera called “Healing Tones.”
It is conveyed, in just a few short scenes, as a deeply touching performance that leaves the audience moved and inspired.
“That’s what a shofar player does,” says Glickman in the film. “We call people to action.”
October 27, 2022 is the four-year anniversary of the shooting. We remember and honor the victims: Rose Mallinger, Melvin Wax, Sylvan Simon, Bernice Simon, Joyce Fienberg, Daniel Stein, Irving Younger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Richard Gottfried, Cecil Rosenthal and David Rosenthal