Howard Fienberg’s mother Joyce was killed in the Tree of Life shooting. Now the gunman faces the death penalty

Joyce Fienberg and her son Howard

For nearly three months, Howard Fienberg sat in a Pittsburgh court listening to the gruesome details of how his mother, Joyce Fienberg and 10 others died when a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018, in the worst act of antisemitic violence in the United States.

On Aug. 2, Fienberg’s duty to his mother was finally finished as the jury handed down its verdict. Robert Bowers, who was found guilty on all 63 counts, including 11 counts of murder, was sentenced to the death penalty. In addition to the 11 people who were killed, six were injured including four police officers in the attack of Oct. 27, 2018.

“It was a great relief, but it’s not doing touchdown dances,” Fienberg, who spoke to The CJN as he was driving back to his home in Virginia, said about the conclusion of the trial.

Joyce Fienberg was born and raised in Toronto. Her confirmation photo still hangs in Holy Blossom Temple where she and her late husband Stephen were married.

His mother did not have a bat mitzvah, because it wasn’t done at the time and she never learned Hebrew, Fienberg said, but she became a regular at the Tree of Life when she started saying Kaddish for her husband in 2016.

“She was someone who would twist herself into knots to help someone else… She realized right away, ‘this is an opportunity to help people. I can be part of the minyan, make sure there’s a minyan every day for other people that need it.’

“She was never going to be at the front of the room leading services.”

On the morning she was murdered, she had been trying to track down a missing part for the synagogue’s broken dishwasher and was arranging the breakfast.

Seven families of the victims, including Fienberg’s, had signed a letter asking that the case come to trial and that if found guilty, that Bowers should receive the death penalty.

“(W)e as a persecuted people understand when there is a time for compassion and when there is a time to stand up and say enough is enough- such violent hatred will not be tolerated on this earth. Our beloved 11 were taken from us in a brutal, cold-blooded act of hatred and violence,” read the letter published in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. “His crimes deserve the death penalty.”

Attending the trial daily was sometimes appalling, and at other times tedious, Fienberg said.

“It is very jarring. Those first few days it’s an onslaught of all the evidence that’s being presented in the case, autopsy photos, crime scene photos, 911 calls, listening to people getting killed and their last breaths… It’s this massive weight and at the same time you’re sitting in very close proximity to the person that did it all,” he recalled.

“A lot of it was sitting in the courtroom in spitting distance of evil. The monster was right there with the defence team. It’s not like he looked at us, he couldn’t care less that we were there.”

Fienberg, 49, and his older brother Anthony who now lives in Paris and attended some of the key moments in the trial, grew up going to the Tree of Life. It was where they attended Hebrew school and had their bar mitzvahs. “That’s where a lot of our life was,” he said.

Howard, Joyce and Anthony Fienberg

As the court heard evidence about the various corridors and back rooms that worshippers tried to use to escape, Fienberg could picture nearly all of them.

The gunman had set up his cache of weapons in what was once his fourth or seventh grade classroom. “That was just an extra gut punch, as if I hadn’t had enough already,” he said.

The families of the victims, the survivors and the police officers who responded, hadn’t known each other before the trial, but become a close-knit group, supporting each other as they sat in the courtroom.

“As much as I would have never wanted to be a part of it, and I wish I didn’t have to be and I could just have my mom back, given the circumstances, it’s a remarkable group of people that I get to call friends. We’re like a family.”

The Jewish community helped as well, arranging for lunch to be brought in daily, and for therapists and even therapy dogs to be there as well. Fienberg recalled that one day that he became upset as he watched from the respite room, a private space outside the court room where families could observe the trial. A large black poodle came over to him and silently sat near his foot to comfort him.

Fienberg had avoided a lot of reports about the murder, but in court he learned all the details. “There’s a certain reassurance in knowing more and of course, an active horror in knowing more.”

Because of the scheduled trial, four-and-a-half years after the shooting, the survivors and victims’ families had refrained from discussing their experiences. In his victim impact statement, Fienberg was forced to recall hearing about the shooting and rushing to Pittsburgh with his wife and then 10-year-old daughter to see if his mother had survived. His daughter suffered terrible nightmares for a while after the shooting.

As the trial reached its final phases, Fienberg said he experienced “a lot of anxiety and anger along the way” as he wondered what the jury was thinking.

“They honoured my mom and I would have said that even if they came back with a sentence that I didn’t like, because they also had to sit through this trial and they couldn’t leave the room if they were overwhelmed by needing to cry or scream or rage or just break down completely. They had to sit there and just grit through it.”

Bowers may not ultimately face capital punishment. His defence team has said they will appeal and the process is likely to be lengthy. The Biden administration declared a moratorium on executions in 2021.

But in the meantime, Fienberg and other families have said they are relieved to know he will be on death row and not in the general prison population.

“He would have had a relatively cushy lifestyle in prison and probably the lifestyle that he wanted. He would have been able to communicate with the outside world. He’s not going to have that freedom in the federal penitentiary system while he’s delaying the death penalty,” Fienberg said.

“He will not be able to get his metaphorical parade that he was expecting for having killed a bunch of Jews and he’s not going to be able to encourage anyone else to do it either.”

During the trial, the court heard that Bowers had not expressed remorse for the shooting, and his only regrets were that he was unsuccessful in making it to a secondary target on the day of the shooting, and that no one had beaten what he called his “score.”

With the trial’s conclusion, Fienberg, a lobbyist, is returning home and to catch up on ten weeks of overdue work.

“I don’t want to forget but my main goal is to figure out a way that I’m not always thinking about it, because it’s all I’ve been thinking about, for the most part, since the trial started. I’ve got to find the right place for it in my head and heart that is not so overwhelming.”

Fienberg will be back in Pittsburgh, though, likely for his mother’s yahrzeit and the anniversary of the shooting Oct. 27.

There is also the groundbreaking for the new Tree of Life. The building has been closed since the shooting and is being redesigned by architect Daniel Libeskind.

“It’s going to be one of the important monuments to my mom’s memory, is the continuity to Jewish life that will come from a renewed Tree of Life, being able to be back in their own building and celebrating Jewish events.”