Pittsburgh Unites in Grief, Even as It Splits Over Trump’s Visit
Posted October 30, 2018 9:10 p.m. EDT
Updated October 31, 2018 12:56 p.m. EDT
PITTSBURGH — One of Pittsburgh’s most solemn days began with hundreds coming together in anguish and grief in synagogues and at gravesides, to start the services for those killed as they prayed on the Sabbath. In the afternoon, they came together again, in shivas to honor the dead and comfort the living, and, later by the thousands, in solemn marches of protest around the Squirrel Hill neighborhood where Saturday’s attack took place.
This is the Pittsburgh that met President Donald Trump, who arrived with members of his family Tuesday.
The presidential visit, welcomed by some in Pittsburgh, unwanted or vigorously opposed by many others, began with a motorcade into the city and a visit to the Tree of Life Synagogue, where Trump placed stones and white roses from the White House in commemoration of those killed in Saturday’s attack by a gunman full of anti-Semitic rage shouting that Jews must die.
But if Trump’s visit was intended to bring healing, it instead laid bare the nation’s deep divisions. Many protesters in Pittsburgh had no doubt of what one called “the dotted line” between presidential rhetoric and violence, although some people in the city have pushed back on the idea that Trump had fomented the atmosphere of anger. As the president moved around Pittsburgh, a largely Democratic city, the signs of discord were apparent.
The protesters, some praying in Hebrew, others singing and chanting, moved around Squirrel Hill. Hoodie-wearing college students and Orthodox Jews with black hats and long beards walked alongside demonstrators carrying militant signs and middle-aged parents pushing strollers. Signs read “Words matter” and “President Hate is not welcome in our state.”
As if to hold up a beloved local figure in contrast to the president, the largest march began on Beechwood Boulevard, where Mr. Rogers, the children’s television figure, used to live, and it ended at the Presbyterian church where he used to pray.
The mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, who just a day before had urged the president not visit while the mourners buried the dead, neither met with Trump nor joined the protests. The top four Republican and Democratic congressional leaders who were invited to join Trump all declined.
At the synagogue, Trump was accompanied by the first lady, Melania Trump, his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner. They were greeted by Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, the spiritual leader of the Tree of Life congregation, and Trump lit candles in a vestibule for each of the 11 shooting victims.
Later, Trump visited the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, spending about an hour at the hospital, meeting privately with four officers who were injured responding to the shooting, along with members of their families. Those officers included Timothy Matson and Daniel Mead, both still hospitalized with gunshot wounds. Two others — Anthony Burke, who was shot in the hand, and Michael Smidga, who was grazed — have been released.
Throughout the president’s visit, protesters amassed by the thousands.
“While our community is still processing this violence from a few days ago, we recognize that it did not happen in a vacuum,” said Ardon Shorr, who helped organize one protest not far from the Jewish Community Center, where the funeral for one of the victims of the attack was held just a few hours earlier. “These Jews were targeted specifically because they were helping refugees,” he said, calling the visit, as funerals were taking place, “insulting” to the victims and their families.
Sherri Suppa, 54, who teaches special education students, held a picture of Mr. Rogers, who made Squirrel Hill his home, and the message “Love Your Neighbor.” Feeling helpless after the attack, she saw the march as a way to show support. She was also adamant that the president did not belong in Pittsburgh on this day. “His coming here is not an empathetic move, it’s a power move,” Suppa said. “It’s the last thing the community needs.”
Not everyone in Pittsburgh was opposed to the visit. Even some of those who do not like Trump at all said he had no good choice, facing criticism if he came and criticism if he did not.
An open letter to the president signed by more than 40 “members of the Pittsburgh Jewish Community” welcomed the president and expressed “gratitude to you and your administration for your unwavering support of Israel.” “How dare they blame Trump for this,” said Tova Weinberg, a registered Democrat and Orthodox Jew who voted for Trump. “We love what he’s doing for Israel, we love what he’s doing for the economy. I’m just crazy about him.”
Dominick Candelore, the co-owner of a Cold Stone Creamery ice cream shop at the heart of Squirrel Hill, disagreed with some Jewish leaders who opposed a presidential visit.
“To me, I welcome him, I welcome him with open arms,” he said. “I don’t have to agree with all his views, but it’s a stand-up thing for him to do.”
Dissent over the president’s visit extended even to the grieving. The family of Daniel Stein, a victim of the attack who was buried Tuesday, explicitly told inquiring federal officials that they did not want to meet with the president. They cited Trump’s comments immediately after the shooting that the Tree of Life should have had an armed guard.
“It was just a worthless thing to say,” said Stephen Halle, Stein’s nephew. “When something tragic has happened, you don’t kick people when they are down. There should have been an apology.”
Stein’s was one of three funeral services in the city Tuesday. Only one of them was open to all, the service for the Rosenthal brothers, David, 54, and Cecil, 59, described at the service by Myers of the Tree of Life as “two of the sweetest human being you could ever meet.” An hour and a half before visitation began, the lines started forming at Rodef Shalom Temple, a stately, domed 111-year old building that is home to one of the oldest Jewish congregations in western Pennsylvania. The crowd, which filled the large sanctuary to standing room, was racially diverse, made up of those stooped with age and crying infants, Jewish people — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and nonobservant — and non-Jews, Pittsburgh natives and those who had flown in from elsewhere.
It seemed as if all of Pittsburgh was there. The mayor came, as did Scott Brady, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, who will be prosecuting the man charged with killing the Rosenthal brothers.
A hundred-strong delegation of the Pittsburgh Steelers came to pay their respects, including the owner, the general manager, dozens of players and Mike Tomlin, the head coach, who lives in Squirrel Hill. Michele Rosenthal, one of the sisters of David and Cecil, worked for the Steelers until several years ago.
The service began with a quiet procession of firefighters in dress uniform from Engine 18, a station not far from Tree of Life where David Rosenthal would spend his afternoons. One by one, they came to the front of the sanctuary and quietly saluted the two simple wooden caskets.
A letter from David Zubik, the Catholic bishop of Pittsburgh, was read. Prayers were sung, psalms read about the valley of the shadow of death. But little was spoken of the grim circumstances that led to the service. Much of the eulogizing centered on its opposite, the kindness and purity of the brothers, who were both developmentally disabled.
Michael Hirt, a brother-in-law, talked of how David and Cecil were distinctive, although they were often referred to simply as “the boys.” There was David, the younger brother, the stickler for cleanliness, who carried a police scanner wherever he went and was the right hand of his mother. And Cecil, the socialite and inveterate gossip, the one who knew everyone, the informal mayor of Squirrel Hill, the mirror image of his father.
David and Cecil would meet everyone coming through the doors at Tree of Life, arriving earlier than everyone else and handing out prayer books as people walked in the door.
“The definition of beautiful souls,” Myers said at the service. And in the rare allusion during the ceremony to the horror that led to their deaths, he added, “not an ounce of hate in them, something we’re terribly missing in society today.”
The service ended and the mourners prepared to proceed to the cemetery. But other events were not far from people’s minds.
“Hey, are you going to be there at 4, at the protest?” one man asked another amid the crowds on the way out of the synagogue.
“I’ll be there,” the other man said.