Pittsburgh — When Bob Ossler heard about the shooting in Pittsburgh, he knew exactly where he needed to be: the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, scene of the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history. “My purpose in life as a minister is to go out there and greet people and offer comfort and prayer and be a listener,” said Ossler. “I want to bring comfort and love.”
A Chicago native who moved to Florida a year ago, Ossler is no stranger to scenes of tragedy and despair. He’s been on the scene at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and in Parkland, Fla., at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas school shooting. He the author of a 2016 book, Triumph Over Terror, about his experience serving at Ground Zero. A retired fireman, paramedic and rescue scuba diver who spent 21 years with the Chicago Fire Department, he now spends his time as a volunteer chaplain with his local fire department in Cape Coral, Fla., and as an associate minister at his Baptist Church.
He arrived in Pittsburgh on Monday afternoon and went straight to the Tree of Life Congregation, where he stood outside speaking with the people there. “I saw people just sitting there stunned, just frozen — stunned and awed by what happened,” said Ossler. “I would just listen to people share.”
People often think that those who are grieving need to be told what to do to “chill out,” said Ossler, but that it’s really about listening. “That’s what decompression is all about, being a good listener, letting them voice their anxiety, their anger and their fears,” said Ossler. “That’s what I do.”
Seeing the memorials set up outside the synagogue where visitors brought flowers, candles, signs, banners, Ossler was overcome by a feeling of awe. Compared with other sites of tragedy where he has offered his services, the area outside the synagogue felt particularly serene. “I saw this beautiful white building with stained glass,” he said. “It’s like it was a hallowed place.”
When asked how he deals with his own feelings of grief from being in such an emotionally wrenching space, he said he plans to pray when he gets home and will offer Communion at his church on Sunday. He was also helped by the presence of therapy dogs at the Pittsburgh airport, with whom he played before his flight out on Wednesday. “I held two dogs,” he said. “It was great — I felt like a kid again.”