Jewish Federation Screening HBO Documentary About Tree of Life Shooting

Audrey Glickman, a survivor of the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, blows the shofar outside the building in the new HBO documentary “A Tree of Life.” (HBO via

On Feb. 21, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, HBO and the Secure Community Network will host a screening of “A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting” at Ritz Five in Society Hill.

The event begins at 6:30 p.m. and includes the one-hour and 21-minute screening with a panel afterward featuring Scott Kerns, who handles security for the Jewish Federation; Jason Holtzman, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council; and Stephen Weiss, a survivor of the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

The documentary, directed by Trish Adlesic and featuring interviews with survivors, came out in 2022 and is available on Max. This event is part of a series of screenings across the country hosted by federations, HBO and the Secure Community Network, which employs Kerns and provides security to federations.

It will be followed by two training courses on Feb. 22, according to Kerns. The first one will be during the day at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia. The second will be at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley at night. Both will focus on countering active threats. Weiss will be present and available at both.

“It’s important, especially in the wake of the Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel, the rising threat of antisemitism and the number of suspicious activities against Jews in the United States,” said Kerns of the documentary. “That’s why we’re doing the training as well.”

Since Oct. 7, the number of incidents “has skyrocketed,” he said. The Secure Community Network recorded 1,200 incidents nationwide in December, according to Kerns. There were 12 in the Philadelphia area on one day, Dec. 14.

“It is important that we remain vigilant,” Kerns said. “This could happen anytime anywhere.”

After Tree of Life, “all of our federations started to hone in on security,” the director added.
He believes that training should be done “at a minimum on a yearly basis.”

SCN, like the Anti-Defamation League, advises Jewish leaders to report incidents. From 2022 to 2023, the number of reported incidents in the Philadelphia area went up by more than 500%, according to Kerns. There’s a report form on, the Federation’s webpage.

“In some of the cases, it could rise to criminal activity,” Kerns said. “It allows us to notify them (law enforcement partners) that there’s a serious issue and we need help investigating it.”

You can register for the screening on

“A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting”

A documentary about the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history does not need to do too much. The event itself is tragic enough to be retold in a straightforward manner. And that is what Adlesic does over 81 minutes.

She establishes the deep roots of the Jewish community in Tree of Life’s neighborhood, Squirrel Hill. One man is even shown checking the score of the Pittsburgh Steelers game.

Then she captures the shooting in all its horrifying detail. Survivors talk of how they got shot, hid, caught a glimpse of the shooter, etc. They recount how SWAT teams stormed into the building to save as many people as they could. Their backstories make clear why this was such a tragedy. In addition to the loss of human life, these humans were just Jews who wanted to pray on the Sabbath.

And lastly, Adlesic asks a question that is still playing out in the legal system. The shooter, Robert Bowers, is clearly guilty. The evidence is well-documented. Bowers’ lawyers barely defended him during his initial trial. But what should his punishment be? Would it be just to put him to death? Or would another loss of life be just as senseless as the losses that came at the point of Bowers’ gun?

The survivors offer varying answers to this question.

The only place where the movie falls short is in establishing the larger context. It shows Bowers’ antisemitic posts about white replacement on the social media platform Gab. It connects them to the larger environment of white supremacy that took shape in America in the back half of the 2010s. It also implies that former president Donald Trump was at least partially responsible for encouraging it all.

But Adlesic doesn’t offer enough background on Gab, a known haven for white supremacists, enough statistics about rises in antisemitic incidents or enough statements from Trump, where he at least winked at people such as Bowers. This evidence was out there. It just was not really used.

But in its essential purpose, illuminating the worst Jewish tragedy in American history, the documentary succeeds.

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