Opinion | The Pittsburgh Gunman Didn’t Just Kill 11 Jews. He Killed a Minyan.

During the trial of Robert Bowers, who was convicted of the 2018 murders of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life Congregation, I kept thinking about the testimony of Stephen Weiss. Mr. Weiss, a retired public school science teacher and long time ritual director for Tree of Life, was one of the 11 people who survived the attack. During the trial, he told the court that in the years since the event, “We don’t have the same attendance.” He explained that the synagogue lost members who could be counted on to make the minyan, the essential quorum of 10 Jews required for certain prayers. “They were killed.”

The murder of any human being is infinitely terrible, but the murder of a Jew in synagogue has a special quality: It makes the tiny minority of Jews who show up for one another at worship — who make the minyan — even smaller.

That loss has unique ramifications, which may not be apparent to the nonobservant. We cannot say prayers for the dead without 10 present. We cannot get married. We cannot read from a Torah scroll. We can’t do Judaism without 10 Jews. And while at bar mitzvahs and weddings those 10 are easily gathered, it is the daily and weekly ritual that is essential to both the griever and the celebrant alike.

There is a tendency, when discussing the Tree of Life massacre, to draw lessons that feel widely applicable, not limited to the case of Jews: demands for tighter gun laws, rallying cries against “white supremacy” and pleas for interfaith cooperation. These universalist appeals make the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history an occasion for well-meaning policy advocacy or moral uplift. To believe in them, you don’t need to know, or care, anything about Jews specifically.

Even the discussion about whether Mr. Bowers should be sentenced to death — which under federal law can be imposed if his actions were “hate crimes” or obstructed the free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death — feels a bit abstract. After all, what does it mean to obstruct religious practice? For Jews, something quite specific. Because there are numerous religious practices that we cannot do without a quorum of 10 (the Orthodox would say 10 Jewish men, while Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews would say 10 Jewish adults), the loss of those stalwart, often unsung members of the community radically alters our literal ability to observe.

In David Bezmozgis’s 2004 short story “Minyan,” Itzik, an elderly immigrant in a building of elderly immigrants, dies. Itzik was a regular at the building’s in-house synagogue; he consistently helped make the minyan. Zalman, the synagogue’s lay leader, has the sway to bump people up on the list for newly vacant apartments, and those angling for a place to live — a vacancy is a rare thing in subsidized housing — promise Zalman that if he gives them the apartment, they will come to services, help make the minyan, like the departed Itzik.

The catch is that Itzik had a roommate, Herschel, who also attends services faithfully. It has been whispered that the two men were more than roommates. But Herschel is not on the lease. So the question is whether to let Herschel stay in the apartment or to evict him and move in a purportedly more respectable Jew, one not gossiped about, not suspected of questionable behavior — but who may not be a minyan regular. At the end of the story, the narrator, the grandson of one of the building’s residents, asks Zalman if he will cave to those who want Herschel evicted.

“You want to know what will happen to Herschel?” Zalman replies. “This. They should know I don’t put a Jew who comes to synagogue in the street.”

Is Herschel gay? Who cares? He shows up. He puts his body on the line.

Robert Bowers did not just deprive those he murdered of their lives. He deprived them of the opportunity to practice their religion — what’s more, he obstructed the religious practice of those who depended on the victims’ presence. And because the murders were committed early on a Sabbath morning, soon after the synagogue building opened, the people caught in his gunfire were reliable attendees, the ones who showed up early, who kept the community running. Two of the Jews killed that morning, Richard Gottfried and Daniel Stein — members of New Light, a small congregation that rented space in Tree of Life — were cornered and shot in the basement kitchen while preparing food. They would have been returning to services shortly to make the minyan.

In the next phase of the trial, jurors will decide whether to give Mr. Bowers the death penalty. Those who support putting him to death may argue that his execution would deliver some sort of justice for the 11 he killed. But it will do nothing for those who cannot say Kaddish for a loved one because the 10th person at the minyan, the one who would have permitted the prayers to be said, is now underground.

Tree of Life and its two tenant congregations all lost members in the shooting, and they all have struggled to replace these loyal minyan-makers. On the days when a synagogue gets to nine Jews, what is needed is another Jew who comes early, is reliably present, is simply there. Such a Jew can be pious or agnostic, observant or wayward. A Jew like me, or like you. A Jew like Herschel.

Mark Oppenheimer, the director of open learning at American Jewish University, is the author of “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.”

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