Pittsburgh comes together to mourn victims, and protesters turn their backs on Trump

Christopher Wilson
·Senior Writer
·8 min read

PITTSBURGH — As the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill began to bury its dead Tuesday from the massacre in the Tree of Life synagogue Saturday, President Trump paid his respects, in a visit few had requested and many opposed. His motorcade was greeted by a demonstration of hundreds of marchers calling to one another to “turn your back” on the president.

A line stretched far down the block for the funeral of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, one of the 11 killed by a gunman whom police have identified as a 46-year-old man, whose social media posts indicate he was enraged by what he perceived as Jewish support for immigration. Rabinowitz, 66, was known for his compassionate treatment of AIDS victims. The service for brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal also drew a large crowd a mile and a half away. There was a heavy police presence outside the Jewish Community Center where Rabinowitz’s service was held, with officers from the Pittsburgh Police Department and nearby Carnegie Mellon University surrounding the facility.

Donald and Melania Trump, accompanied by Rabbi Jeffrey Myers
First lady Melania Trump, accompanied by President Trump and Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, right, pays her respects at the Tree of Life synagogue. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

Trump, who spent three and a half hours in the city, including a visit to a pop-up memorial to the victims and to wounded police officers recovering in the hospital, had been asked by Mayor Bill Peduto to delay the trip until all the services were concluded. City councilor Erika Strassburger, who lives near the Tree of Life and drives past the building every day, said her constituents had contacted her to oppose the trip.

“There are many, many constituents who’ve reached out to me by phone and email concerned that the president’s visit today will add to the trauma of the community and many community members,” said Strassburger early Tuesday afternoon before Trump’s arrival. “I won’t say that necessarily speaks for every single person in my district, that’s just what I’ve heard.”

Strassburger’s constituents weren’t the only ones against Trump’s visit. Local officials — Peduto, county executive Rich Fitzgerald, Gov. Tom Wolf, and Sen. Bob Casey and Sen. Pat Toomey (all Democrats save for Toomey) — declined to join. Trump also failed to convince congressional leadership from either party to take the trip. Trump spoke with family members of at least one victim, according to Dr. Donald Yealy, but others reportedly rebuffed offers from the White House to meet the president, who has been blamed by commentators for inspiring violence with his anti-immigrant rhetoric and his demonization of “globalists,” a word that has been historically associated with anti-Semitism. His remarks shortly after the shooting that the gunman could have been deterred by an armed guard were also controversial. (Four police officers were injured in the apprehension of the shooter.)

Trump was ultimately joined by his daughter Ivanka Trump, son-in-law Jared Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, chief of staff John Kelly and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer.

People protesting President Trump gather near the Tree of Life Congregation
People protesting President Trump gather near the Tree of Life Congregation on Oct. 30, 2018. (Photo: Brendan Smialovski/AFP/Getty Images)

Slideshow: Protesters jeer Trump in Pittsburgh >>>

The tributes throughout the city were both large and small, as Pittsburghers sought ways to express their grief and solidarity. So many businesses had signs in their window that read “Our hearts cry for Shalom [Peace]” that it was surprising to come across one that didn’t. Sandwich boards usually used to announce the day’s specials were repurposed to offer condolences. The movie theater in the heart of town shifted its marquee, shoving the latest Ryan Gosling and Keira Knightley features down so they could spell out “PGH IS STRONGER THAN HATE.”

Religious groups in the area did their best to help and show respect to the Jewish community. Crowd-funding efforts from Muslim groups have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Tree of Life community. The Sixth Presbyterian Church — where Fred Rogers, a Pittsburgh resident most of his life, had served as minister — held a vigil for the victims and allowed the Jewish congregations to gather there.

The city’s sports teams joined in as well. On Tuesday evening, the Penguins played their first home game since the tragedy. They scrapped the planned Halloween theme in exchange for a collection of donations, a moment of silence and a special patch, the normal logo over the Star of David along with the message “Stronger Than Hate.” One hundred members of the Steelers organization — including head coach Mike Tomlin, a Squirrel Hill resident — attended the Rosenthal funeral on Tuesday morning.

Makeshift memorials appeared at the Tree of Life building, just beyond the cordon of police tape marking an active crime scene. Eleven Stars of David bore the names of the victims, and bouquets and candles accumulated beneath them. There were also messages — a child had written “Thank you for being the helpers in our neighborhood” on the front of a homemade card — and because this is Pittsburgh there was a Steelers Terrible Towel among the tributes. A small crowd milled around, sharing embraces before the television news cameras. A few prayed or read silently from the Torah while others thanked the officers on duty. A woman said her daughter’s school had canceled a planned active shooter drill scheduled for Monday.

Mourners after the funeral service of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz
Mourners after the funeral service of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, outside the Jewish Community Center in Pittsburgh. (Photo: Gene J. Puskar/AP)

After the funerals, mourners gathered to join in prayer and song and the Jewish tradition of tearing a black cloth or ribbon, a symbolic rending of garments. They were mournful and also defiant, insisting that the evil that had affected their community would not prevail. By mid-afternoon, the area was cleared for Donald and Melania Trump to visit and place a flower at each of the 11 stars.

As Trump’s plane landed at Pittsburgh International Airport, protesters gathered at the corner of Forbes Avenue and Beechwood Boulevard, a few blocks from the synagogue. Many carried placards saying “I signed the letter,” referring to a petition asking Trump to stay away until he renounced white nationalism and stopped targeting minority populations. Other signs read “Words matter,” and specifically Pittsburgh references — “We do bridges not walls” — referring to the three rivers that run through the city, and an insult in the English-adjacent dialect known fondly as Pittsburghese (“Hey POTUS yinz a jagoff”).

The crowd swelled as hundreds began to march while singing psalms and moving through the tree-lined streets toward the Tree of Life on an idyllic, sun-drenched fall day. As the marchers stopped for a final ceremony to honor the victims, they were interrupted by the sirens of the White House motorcade, which cut through the crowd as organizers shouted “Turn your back.”

Afterward they continued the march, slowing to cheer and chant “Thank you” to first responders who were at a nearby fire hall. Some in the crowd ran over to shake hands and hug the officers. Trump’s time in Pittsburgh concluded with a visit to the UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Oakland and the officers who were injured in Saturday’s attack.

When considering how to deal with the grief, many rally goers suggested the response should be at the voting booth next week, as signs that read “Vote” were common among the crowd along with one man who had simply written the word across his forehead. The ballots cast in this community are unlikely to affect what are mostly safe districts for Democrats, but a large turnout will help Casey and Wolf, who are up for reelection (and comfortably ahead in the polls). They could also make a difference in 2020, as Trump vies for a repeat victory in a state he won by 44,000 votes.

The marquee of the Manor Theatre a few blocks from the Tree of Life synagogue. (Photo: Christopher Wilson/Yahoo News)
The marquee of the Manor Theatre a few blocks from the Tree of Life synagogue. (Photo: Christopher Wilson/Yahoo News)

If the gunman’s goal was to divide this community or intimidate them out of helping the refugees that had inspired his attack, he could not have been more of a failure. Every race, color and creed came together in the wake of the attack to denounce hate. And as far as the 130-year-old refugee resettlement organization whose works motivated the shooter, they were already holding meetings in the community about how to move forward with their work.

Rabbi Jamie Gibson of nearby Temple Sinai said the gunman’s anti-immigrant focus had done little to shake the city’s belief in diversity.

“I think the community is firmly supportive of refugees and immigrants to come to this country,” said Gibson. “Squirrel Hill is a marvelous example of a success story, that diversity enriches us all as opposed to frightening us or making us feel less safe I actually feel better knowing I can walk down Forbes Avenue at any given moment and hear Chinese or Arabic or French or Japanese or English or Russian. We are intensely curious about each other and each other’s stories for their differences but even more for their commonality.”

“The unity we’ve seen is the light in the darkness,” said Strassburger of the community she represents. “It speaks to the relationships that just existed not just in Squirrel Hill but among various religions, among various organizations throughout the city and there wasn’t a need to build that as soon as the tragedy happened. Those relationships between the Jewish community, the Christian and Catholic community, the Muslim community and many, many others not just distinguished by their religion really coming together to support each other.”

People protesting against US President Donald Trump wait near the Tree of Life Congregation on October 30, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)trump
People protesting against US President Donald Trump wait near the Tree of Life Congregation on October 30, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)trump

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