Remembering the Doctor Killed When He Rushed to Help Others in the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting

'He had a moral compass stronger than anyone I have ever known,' colleague says of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz

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People hug after a vigil to remember the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, October 28, 2018.
People hug after a vigil to remember the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, Pittsburgh, October 28, 2018.Credit: AFP
Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft

As the sounds of what turned out to be a shooter opening fire on a group of Jews in prayer thundered through Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday morning, a family doctor named Jerry Rabinowitz rushed toward the noise to go help, according to his nephew and a friend. 

On Sunday, Rabinowitz’s name was announced on the list of 11 men and women killed in the 20-minute shooting spree by suspected gunman Robert Bowers. Armed with an AR-15-style rifle and three handguns, Bowers had told a SWAT team he wanted "all Jews to die.”

Rabinowitz is remembered as a deeply caring physician and friend, easily recognizable with his trademark bow tie and smiling face, and one of the first doctors in Pittsburgh to treat HIV-positive patients. He was a leader of Dor Hadash, a Reconstructionist congregation that met in the synagogue (one of three different congregations that hold services in the building).

The congregation that was the main focus of Saturday's attack was holding services in one part of the building, while Dor Hadash met in a separate section at the same time.

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Avishai Ostrin, Rabinowitz's nephew, wrote a Facebook post explaining that his uncle had been killed while trying to help others.

Ostrin wrote, “When he heard shots he ran outside to try and see if anyone was hurt and needed a doctor. That was Uncle Jerry, that’s just what he did.”

He told Haaretz that this was the account his family had been given. “It speaks to his personality … he was extraordinary,” said Ostrin. 

Brian Primack, a friend of Rabinowitz and a fellow member of Dor Hadash, told Haaretz that Rabinowitz ran to help when they heard a loud noise. Another Dor Hadash member, a nurse, was with him and is among the injured, according to Ostrin.

Primack described Rabinowitz in a statement: "Jerry was more than a pillar of our community. … He was a gifted teacher, a truly caring family doctor, and a tremendous community leader.

"He was the first to get to the Shabbat service so he could set up chairs – and then the last to leave so he could clean up and organize the books. … I will deeply miss his smile, his wit, his positivity, and his consistent urge to help," he added.

Credit: Michael Kerr

Ostrin said his uncle had patients who were the third generation in their family to be treated by him. 

“It shows how committed he was to his patients,” he said. “His bow ties, his laughter – this is what stands out to me; he had this happy-go-lucky personality.”

Another Facebook testimonial came from a former patient named Michael Kerr who Rabinowitz treated for HIV, starting in the mid-1990s.

“Thank you Dr. Rabinowitiz for having always been there during the most terrifying and frightening time of my life. You will be remembered by me always," Kerr wrote.

Dr.Jerry Rabinowitz, left, and his wife Miri with their niece at her wedding in Israel, 2016.Credit: Courtesy of Avishai Ostrin

 Among others paying tribute to Rabinowitz was another former patient, Law Claus, the former Allegheny County deputy district attorney.

"He was truly a trusted confidant and healer," he wrote in an email to his former co-workers on Sunday, cited by The Associated Press. "Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz ... could always be counted upon to provide sage advice whenever he was consulted on medical matters, usually providing that advice with a touch of genuine humor. He had a truly uplifting demeanor, and as a practicing physician he was among the very best."

Kenneth Ciesielka, a colleague who practiced with Rabinowitz since 1986 (after they attended college and medical school together), told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “He was one of the finest people I've ever met in my life. He had a moral compass stronger than anyone I have ever known.”

Ostrin, 32, lives in Ra'anana, north of Tel Aviv. His family emigrated from the United States when he was a boy, and Rabinowitz and his wife Miri (Ostrin’s mother’s sister) would visit often for family events. They were in Israel most recently for a niece's wedding two years ago, Ostrin said. 

“We got used to a situation where bad news comes from this side of the ocean – and all of a sudden to have something like this happen,” Ostrin said. “You just don’t imagine this happening in Squirrel Hill. ... Most Israelis perceive America to be the last safe haven for Jews outside of Israel. To see something like this happen in that country, just because they were Jews, is shocking and devastating.” 

Rabinowitz is survived by his wife, a brother and his mother. 

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