HARRISBURG, Pa. – Pennsylvania lawmakers solemnly remembered the 11 worshippers killed in an anti-Semitic attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue last fall, hearing Wednesday from an affected congregation's rabbi that "all is not well in our republic."
The rare joint session in the chambers of the state's House of Representatives was attended by nearly two dozen family members of victims of the Oct. 27 attack on the three congregations holding services that day. Among those in attendance was Andrea Wedner, whose 97-year-old mother was killed and who was herself was among seven people wounded.
"This moment of American history and this ravaging Sabbath massacre in my hometown tells us that all is not well in our republic," said Rabbi Cheryl Klein, whose Dor Hadash congregation had a member killed and another wounded. "Hate is emboldened, and white supremacists are somehow mainstreamed. This diseased American moment was anti-Semitism in our face. It is ugly, unacceptable, and its condemnation needs to be met with tireless strength."
"We pray that we are not guilty of inaction. We pray that we are not guilty of complacency. We pray that we are not guilty of allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by politics," Klein said.
The service was held a day after the Pittsburgh mayor signed new gun control measures that were introduced weeks after the attack. The legislation was immediately challenged in court by gun rights advocates who argued municipalities may not impose firearms regulations that go beyond what state law allows.
Klein, who was out of town the day of the attack told the joint session gun violence kills tens of thousands of Americans annually and said she prayed that lawmakers will find the courage to seek a path forward.
"The assault on these three congregations was an act of unimaginable evil," said state Rep. Dan Frankel, whose district includes the Tree of Life building where the massacre occurred. "But it has been met with unfathomable bravery and love within our community and far beyond it. Literally hundreds of people acted heroically, starting within seconds of the first gunshot."
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of the New Light Congregation gave the opening prayer. Perlman, who was in the synagogue during the massacre, asked that God "grant us peace, your most precious gift."
Truck driver Robert Bowers, 46, of Baldwin, Pennsylvania, has pleaded not guilty to carrying out the attack, during which authorities say he expressed hatred of Jews. The charges he faces could result in the death penalty, though his lawyer said last month she hopes the case will be resolved without a trial.
On Wednesday, lawmakers passed identical resolutions that highlighted the history of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh and remembered the victims individually. The resolutions established April 10 as Stronger Than Hate Day in Pennsylvania.
"In the painful aftermath of the attack, the singular phrase that arose from the heartbroken city of Pittsburgh became 'Stronger Than Hate,'" the resolutions said. "The General Assembly thanks the first responders, rabbis, staff, lay leadership and hundreds of members of these synagogues who helped their family and friends."
Frankel spoke about the attack on the House floor in November and wanted to give mourners some time before putting together a more formal legislative memorial.
The only previous time the state's House and Senate met together in response to a tragedy was after Sept. 11, officials said.
State House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler spoke of the 2006 shooting at an Amish school near his home in Lancaster County that killed five girls and wounded five others.
"Those who choose to commit horrendous acts like this of terror and violence can never achieve their ultimate goal, which is the triumph of hate," Cutler said.
Gov. Tom Wolf, who also attended, said the shooting continues to haunt him and his wife, Frances Wolf.
"But we continue to be inspired by the ways in which the people of Pittsburgh came and stood together in the face of hatred and violence," Wolf said. "We owe a debt of gratitude to all those who chose love over hate."