PITTSBURGH—Rabbi Chuck Diamond wants President Donald Trump to hold off coming here until after the funerals for 11 of his one-time congregants murdered by a gunman in the most deadly act of anti-Semitic violence in U.S. history.
“I would plead with the president to wait,” said the former rabbi at Tree of Life synagogue, the site of the mass shooting last Saturday. “I also hope he would come in and offer his condolences after we have buried them and had a chance to mourn.” The series of funerals began Tuesday.
Although details on exact time and place are yet to be announced the White House said Trump and First Lady Melania Trump will visit the Steel City Tuesday. Like all things related to Trump, the visit will be divisive in a way that has not been associated with former presidents. Some in the city are on edge over his failure to strongly and unequivocally condemn white supremacism after such a deadly and brazenly anti-Semitic act.
Trump’s “rhetoric is awful,” Diamond told The Daily Beast “and there are times when he needs to be stronger” in his condemnation of rightwing violence. Diamond cites the Charlottesville rally after which Trump famously said, “You also had some very fine people on both sides.”
Diamond’s pleas echoed those of Mayor Bill Peduto who cautioned Trump to confer with the victims’ families and warned that public safety dollars would be stretched to accommodate both the presidential visit and the succession of high-profile funerals. A former president of Tree of Life told Trump not to come, period, and a Pittsburgh branch of Jewish progress group Bend the Arc gathered more than 56,000 online signatures asking Trump to stay in D.C.
The mayor and county executive declined a White House invitation to join Trump, as did congressional leaders.
From her apartment in a nearby neighborhood Sarah Grumet, who grew up in Squirrel Hill, seethed at mention of Trump. “He has spent two years preaching hate and xenophobia and violence and now he thinks he's wanted here and he thinks it's acceptable to come to our town when our whole town is sitting Shiva,” said Grumet, 35, “It's laughing in our faces.”
She said she would prefer Trump spend the day refraining from Twitter or disavowing white nationalism.
Two nights after the shooting, Squirrel Hill sits in stunned silence. The continuous flashing of police lights continuously marks the crimes scene.
The street outside Tree of Life didn’t open until Monday. With police cruisers and cable news vans surrounding the synagogue in the days after the tragedy, mourners left flowers in small piles on random street corners. The largest tribute is on a grass bank outside Chatham University.
The Squirrel Hill Café, the neighborhood’s decades-old watering hole, was full on Monday night. A waitress apologized to patrons for the lack of seating at the bar. Customers were packed into the smoky, no-frills bar nicknamed the Squirrel Cage to drown their sorrows or discuss the latest developments in a quiet town that became the focus of international news on Saturday.
Randy Caputo, a 67-year-old retired U.S. Steel worker who now has an “easy” job at local motel, favors a visit from Trump, as long as he can mind his mouth.
“I think it would be good to show his respect,” said Caputo, who is also quick to inject that Trump’s speaking habits cause him dismay.
“The way he calls that guy in North Korea ‘Little Rocket Man’ and that lady ‘Pocahontas,’ I think he sometimes forgets he’s president” Caputo said. “The only way you get respect is you give respect.”
Chris Stalnaker, 36, taking a load off after working at a nearby eatery, is much less conflicted. “I absolutely hate him,” he said. “I don't want him in Pittsburgh. I feel like he is inflammatory to every situation.”
“I’d rather he didn’t come here,” said Matt Vandora, who is a bartender at the Squirrel Hill Café, shrugging his shoulders as if he was resigned to a presidential visit. He said he thought Trump’s “inability to comprehend things he says and how they affect people,” made him act “like a sociopath” which was hardly what Pittsburgh needs right now.
Lesley Stewart, 25, heard the aftermath of the shooting unfold from her home a few blocks away. She said she was reluctant to speak out against Trump’s visit because she didn’t want to back up the notion that “left-leaning people are intolerant.”
Having said that she cannot forget what the president said after the murder at Charlottesville. “Some good people on both sides,’ she recalled, “which implies there are good neo-Nazis.”