The Psychiatrist That the Tree of Life Synagogue Shooter Did Not Shoot


Does prior trauma build resilience?




Often, the daily news will reverberate to the past and to happier or traumatic memories of emotional importance. That happened to me recently as I was reading a book review in the Yale Alumni Magazine (January/February 2022) of the new book by Mark Oppenheimer titled Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.1 The neighborhood is in Pittsburgh, where over 3 years ago, 11 Jews were killed. It is still the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history. This triggered thoughts of the recent hostage event at Congregation Beth Israel of Colleyville, Texas.

Near the end of this book review, I was caught short as I read about the profiles of Squirrel Hill’s inhabitants, “including the 90-year-old retired psychiatrist whom the shooter looked at but didn’t shoot.” My imagination started to run wild. Was this psychiatrist just lucky? Or was there something in his look that influenced the shooter to not pull the trigger, the alleged psychiatrist “superpower” of reading peoples’ minds?

With morbid curiosity, I had to read the book as soon as possible, so ordered it for overnight mail, and quickly found where the psychiatrist was discussed (p. 200-202). E. Joseph Charny, MD, was the oldest survivor.

In his career, Dr Charny had ended up working at the state hospital until his boss and he were let go when he was in his 60s. After his wife challenged him to find something worthwhile to do, he went to the synagogue and became a regular at the morning minyan and a lay leader over the next 25 years or so.

When he was interviewed by Oppenheimer, he professed not to have been traumatized and that he was not a victim. He said he never felt in trouble as the event was happening, saying: “Why he didn’t shoot me, I don’t know.” At first, Oppenheimer felt that Dr Charny’s use of mindfulness and psychoanalytic education may have helped. Dr Chary felt somewhat differently. He said that he was prepared, to some degree, not only from his job loss, but also dramatic service in World War II, and the death of his son from AIDS. Perhaps, then, his superpower was the resilience he developed from prior traumas, just the kind of resilience the hostages will need, helped along by the loving kindness of others.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues relate to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric TimesTM.


1. Oppenheimer M. Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. Knopf; 2021.

Related Videos
Dune Part 2
© 2024 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.