The Jewish doctor who treated synagogue killer

Compassion: “Many of the people who attended to [the killer] were Jewish. And they’re heroes.”

Will his example inspire others? Dr Jeffrey Cohen has been praised for his “powerful humanity” after he helped save the life of a mass killer who hated Jews. Some see a lesson for us all.

It was the deadliest attack on Jews in American history. Last Saturday, Robert Bowers opened fire on innocent worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Eleven people were killed, and six more wounded.

Among the injured was the gunman himself. Hurt in a shoot-out with police, he surrendered and was taken to a local hospital. When he arrived, he started shouting, “I want to kill all the Jews.” Of the doctors and nurses fighting to save his life, several were Jewish.

Chief among them was Dr Jeffrey K. Cohen. As President of the hospital, Cohen ensured that the shooter received the best treatment. “My job isn’t to judge him,” he said in a TV interview, “my job is to care for him.” The clip went viral; thousands moved by his compassion.

A member of the synagogue’s congregation, Cohen knew several of the victims. He even heard the gunshots as the massacre unfolded.

Despite all this, he refused to condemn the shooter. “He’s like a lot of people that come in here. They’re scared, they’re confused,” he said.

“Quite honestly, he’s just a guy… he’s some mother’s son. And how did he get from that to where he is today? That’s going to be a large debate that we have to wrestle with.”

For some, his message is reminiscent of the 2015 South Carolina church shooting, when Dylann Roof murdered nine black churchgoers. Before Roof’s trial, several members of the congregation publicly forgave him.

History also remembers other unique individuals for their humane behaviour towards sworn enemies. During the Second World War, German soldier Friedrich Lengfeld died while trying to rescue a wounded American from a minefield. His bravery was honoured by the US Army.

What impact Cohen’s words will have remains to be seen. But as cultural divisions in the US deepen — or as The Washington Post puts it, in an “era increasingly marked by naked partisanship and tribalism” — some hope that Cohen’s actions will help encourage compassion over hate.

Will his example inspire others?

Duty calls

Yes, some argue. The shooting was tragic, but Cohen’s compassion gives us hope. It is timely too. Rising nationalism in America and Europe forces some citizens to think they are better than others — by race, religion or nationality. Cohen teaches us that, even in times of violent division, we are capable of empathy. This is a powerful force.

Conflict runs too deep, others respond. Cohen’s actions were exceptional, but for many others the appeal of tribalism is only getting stronger. Whether it is liberals arguing with conservatives or prejudice against migrants and ethnic minorities, sewing division is becoming a more powerful political force than encouraging unity. It will take much more to change that.

You Decide

  1. Imagine you were in the same position as Dr Jeffrey Cohen. Would you have reacted in the same way?
  2. Does everyone deserve forgiveness?


  1. Cohen’s actions show a high level of compassion for other people. In pairs or small groups, discuss the role that compassion plays in your own daily lives. In what ways do you think you could be more compassionate?
  2. Consider this statement: “This incident proves that there is still so much evil in the world.” To what extent do you agree? Write two paragraphs explaining why you either agree or disagree with the statement.

Some People Say...

“Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Martin Luther King Jr

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Robert Bowers has been charged with 29 crimes for violence and firearms offences. He may face the death penalty if convicted. He was also found to have posted many anti-Semitic messages on social media accounts, making this shooting a racially-motivated crime.
What do we not know?
The exact condition that Bowers was in when he arrived at the hospital, although he did appear in court in a wheelchair on Monday. Cohen declined to give specifics about Bowers’s condition and treatment. We cannot say for sure how, and to what extent, the political climate in America encouraged Bowers to commit the crime.

Word Watch

Jewish place of worship. This one was called the Tree of Life.
The victims included Dr Jerry Rabinowitz; 97-year-old Rose Mallinger; and two brothers, Cecil and David Rosenthal. Learn more about their stories by following the link in Become An Expert.
Large debate
Some blame a rising atmosphere of anti-Semitism, encouraged by right-wing political groups. See Become An Expert for more details.
“You took something very precious away from me,” said Nadine Collier, daughter of one of the victims, to the killer: “I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul.”
Strong support for a political party or cause, and a reluctance to find compromise or common ground with opponents.
Behaviour arising from a strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group.

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