'Trump Encourages It': Pittsburgh Jews Still Fear Far-right Violence, Two Years After Massacre

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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Rabbi Jamie Gibson, left, David and Meryl Ainsman, and Rabbi Aaron Bisno in Pittsburgh, October 2020.
Rabbi Jamie Gibson, left, David and Meryl Ainsman, and Rabbi Aaron Bisno in Pittsburgh, October 2020. Credit: Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

PITTSBURGH – The fence surrounding the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood is covered with messages of unity and hope. They serve as a reminder to the events of October 27, 2018, when a white nationalist murdered 11 worshippers here during the Saturday morning service. But they also represent this community’s response to hatred.

Many Jews in the neighborhood now have another statement to make: President Donald Trump’s rhetoric at the time and failure to condemn white supremacy contributed to the attack and they vow to vote him out of office next Tuesday on Election Day.

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“I always believed our government would protect us, whoever the ‘us’ is,” says Meryl Ainsman, 66, a lifelong Pittsburgher and former chair of the local Jewish Federation board. “I don’t feel that anymore,” she adds, sitting in her backyard that’s a 10-minute walk from the Tree of Life.

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Pennsylvania is widely regarded as one of the most consequential swing states in this election. Trump won it by some 44,000 votes in 2016 and, driving through the Keystone State en route to Pittsburgh, it looks as if the president remains popular in rural areas. “Trump 2020” signs are frequently displayed on farms on each side of the highway, but they seem to disappear as you approach the Steel City. In fact, locals commonly joke that Pennsylvania consists of the Democratic cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh at either end, with everything in-between “Kentucky.”

Courting hatred 

A Star of David outside the shuttered Tree of Life synagogue, October 2020.Credit: Danielle Ziri

The Tree of Life massacre was the deadliest attack on American Jews in U.S. history, but antisemitic incidents had been on the rise prior to the tragedy – most notably with the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 when neo-Nazis chanted “Jews will not replace us.”

The day of the shooting, Ainsman and her husband David, 70, were in their kitchen and began hearing an unusually high number of sirens outside. As emergency vehicles flew past their home, they sheltered a Jewish man who had been told by police to flee the scene.

The Ainsmans will never forget “10/27”: the date has become a noun to them. The couple is well-known in the local Jewish community, being involved in multiple Jewish organizations and Israel-related initiatives. Outside their front door, they have two Democratic yard signs in support of former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris.

“Trump is definitely courting right-wing militias and they’ve done nothing but talk hatred against Jews and Black people – and they’re very well-armed,” David Ainsman says. “I’ve always felt in the back of my head that there can be another Holocaust and it can be in the United States of America. And Trump encourages it, in my opinion,” he adds starkly.

Similar concerns are voiced by retired Rabbi Jamie Gibson. “It’s my personal opinion that the inability to condemn violence allows people to think that violence is OK,” he tells Haaretz over a cup of tea at his home. At the time of the attack two years ago, Gibson, 66, was the pulpit rabbi at Temple Sinai, a 15-minute walk from Tree of Life. He was leading morning prayers and holding a baby when news of the attack broke. 

The most politically motivated set of skeletons in Pittsburgh. The one on the right says "Mitch McConnell's soul."Credit: Danielle Ziri

“Charlottesville was a big wake-up call because we saw Americans walking with swastika insignias,” he recounts. “Our fathers and grandfathers who served in World War II died fighting this, and this is what you’re going to hold up as your emblem?” 

Susan Friedberg Kalson has lived almost her whole life within a mile of the Tree of Life building, a modest construction on the corner of Wilkins and Shady avenues. She runs a health center where one of the victims, Dr. Richard Gottfried, used to work. “I cannot overstate the trauma of that day and the days afterward,” the 61-year-old told Haaretz over the phone. “I cannot overstate the shock of understanding, in a very brutally tangible way, the reality of acts of violence by white supremacists.”

While she believes that Jews “still feel very safe” in the United States, Friedberg Kalson adds that this safety depends on people’s “participation in democracy.”

For her, there’s “clear evidence that hate has been unleashed, that things that were socially unacceptable to express previously are now out in the open and being acted upon.

Clockwise from top: A garden decked out with skeletons for Halloween; decorated boards outside the Tree of Life, a placard featuring Mr. Rogers; and a "No place for hate" sign in Squirrel Hill.Credit: Danielle Ziri

“My concern about stomping down hate and violence and ugly rhetoric and behavior is absolutely part of this vote,” she explains. “It’s not just my fear for Jews – it’s my fear for many others who are much more vulnerable and much more exposed than we are.”

Politicized skeletons

There are some 50,000 Jews in Pittsburgh, with the majority still congregated in and around the historically Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, according to a 2017 study published by the Berman Jewish Databank. Redbrick houses line the streets, blending into the colors of the fall foliage, with many sporting Halloween decorations and election signs. One house has a display of skeletons, each holding a poster. One reads “Ingested cleaning solution ... my bad!” while another says “‘Finally someone in the White House who makes me look good!’ – Nixon.” The house next door proves something of an outlier as its sign proclaims “Drain the swamp! Keep America great!” 

Walking through the streets of Shadyside, to the north of Squirrel Hill, Rodef Shalom Congregation Rabbi Aaron Bisno frequently stops to greet people he knows. As the rabbi of one of the largest and oldest Reform synagogues in town, the 52-year-old is used to bumping into congregants.

The Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh.Credit: Danielle Ziri

“We can’t yet draw a direct line from hate speech to violence, but we know it exists and it creates the environment and the climate [for such violence],” he tells Haaretz, sitting outside a café. 

Two years ago, Bisno had to interrupt his Saturday service and lockdown Rodef Shalom as news of the shooting came in. Seven of the victims’ funerals took place at his synagogue, which still hosts some of the Tree of Life congregants. (With the building itself still shuttered, the shul’s congregants meet at three different synagogues in the area.)

“I grew up with the understanding that in America, every generation could do better than the generation that came before – that was sort of the promise,” he says. “I’ve got a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old, and I don’t have the expectation that life is going to be better or easier for them. That’s sad, right?” 

He adds: “Antisemitism can happen here. Fascism, the loss of democracy, can happen here. We’re watching it.”

It would be wrong to think, however, that all Jews in Pittsburgh see a connection between Trump’s rhetoric and the mass shooting. Originally from Los Angeles, Len Asimow, 81, moved here just a few months before 9/11 in 2001. Earlier this month, he cast his ballot for Trump, citing the incumbent’s economic policies and foreign policy with regard to Israel.

Len Asimow in East Liberty, Pittsburgh, October 2020. Credit: Danielle Ziri

“I might be foolish and misguided or something, but I dont think I’m an evil person,” he says, defending his support of Trump.

A former mathematics and actuarial science professor, Asimow considers himself a conservative. But you won’t find him wearing Trump’s trademark MAGA red cap. He opts instead for a blue one sporting the logo of the LA Dodgers, his favorite baseball team. 

The Tree of Life attack was “a hugely traumatic event,” he says, but he considers it a “one-off. I don’t see it as a harbinger of radical right-wing antisemitism and Nazism, and so forth,” he adds. “I see it as [the actions of] a crazy guy, and hopefully we don’t witness other things that would undermine that conclusion.”

‘Fundamental decency’ 

The office of Pittsburgh’s Democratic mayor, Bill Peduto, houses many historical objects and artworks – from the wooden desk that has been used by each of his predecessors since 1917, to a portrait of Muhammad Ali by Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol. But two pieces serve as a constant reminder of the Tree of Life shooting: a blue menorah symbolizing light in darkness, and a mouse pad with the phrase “words matter,” which someone sent to Peduto following the tragedy.  

“Donald Trump has created the division by, instead of trying to bring us together, constantly beating this drum of how different we are,” says Peduto, who turns 56 later this week. What the president has done over his term in office, the mayor adds, is “stoke the flames of racism and hatred.”

When Trump came to Pittsburgh a few days after the attack in 2018, Peduto refused to greet him in person – something he still faces criticism for two years on. “But how could I be standing there with him when it was the words he was putting out there that brought that person to Squirrel Hill?” he states.

Peduto says he’ll never forget that rainy Saturday morning. He was sleeping in when he got two consecutive calls from his chief of staff – a signal that something required his immediate attention. “There are so many memories that are so strong, I don’t think they’ll ever fade,” he says. “It’s not only the future of our country that’s at stake, but the future of this world,” he adds.

In her backyard in Squirrel Hill, Meryl Ainsman tells Haaretz that she’s “tired of waking up every morning and wondering: what did he do now?” Trump winning reelection next week, she says, is something she prefers not to think about. “He has destroyed this country, he has destroyed this democracy, he has destroyed my faith in the government,” she stresses.

Mayor Bill Peduto, right, and the blue menorah on a desk in his office. Credit: Danielle Ziri

Her husband, a personal injury lawyer, agrees. “This is not what I want the world to see as representative of the United States, nor do I want my children and grandchildren to see that the president of the United States is a sociopath.”

For Gibson, too, the presidential race is essentially about “fundamental decency.” He adds that “under the present administration, people have acted in ways that aren’t according to the values that we profess of justice, of caring, or welcoming. Look, we put children in cages here,” he says, referring to the White House policy of separating immigrant families at the Mexican border. 

The first time Asimow was eligible to vote was in 1960. At the time, he was “absolutely enthralled” by John F. Kennedy and enthusiastically voted for the Democratic candidate. “Since that time I’ve matured, and to me it’s no longer all about the persona of the candidate,” he says. “I’m kind of a small government, limited government, liberty-oriented, culturally conservative guy.”

As Asimow puts it, he has “a higher threshold for a lot [of Trump’s] nonsense” than most fellow Pittsburgh Jews, and is more prepared to look at the president’s actions rather than his behavior. “The guy is an incredible iconoclast,” he says. “Our religion was founded by iconoclasts.” But, he stresses, he’s not in complete agreement with all of the president’s policies. “I tend to believe in more open immigration, which I think is at least the one part that will be in concert with Jewish values,” Asimow says.

Almost immediately after the Tree of Life shooting, Pittsburgh’s Jewish community received an outpouring of support from other faith groups both in the city and worldwide. “I think it came at a very important moment for America,” Peduto says. “What Pittsburgh showed was its true character, and I think the world saw it.”

The mayor believes the Jewish community in his city and the United States as a whole has the ability to “tip the scale” next week. “As you see a more liberal, younger Jewish community that will be with Biden, I think that it is incumbent upon them to talk to their parents and grandparents about why it’s important for the Jewish community to be with Biden,” he says.

“The rhetoric knows no bounds when it comes to hate – and even though the target may be people from other parts of the world, everybody is a part of it,” he concludes.

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