Before October 27, Pittsburgh conjured up images of tough football players missing front teeth, three rivers, and a rust-belt steel town that weathered bad times but was now on the rebound.
But then a gunman walked into a synagogue during Shabbat morning services, killed 11 worshipers and injured seven others. From that moment on, as Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto acknowledged during an interview Sunday with The Jerusalem Post, the city has an asterisk by its name that will be difficult to erase: the site of the worst antisemitic attack in American history.
Peduto said it will not be possible for years to determine whether Pittsburgh will forever be associated in people’s minds with the Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha synagogue attack, just as Dallas is associated with the John F. Kennedy assassination, and Memphis with the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“It puts us in that category that no city wants to be recognized for, just as now we are part of the community of cities that have faced mass homicides through gun violence,” Peduto said.
The mayor is currently in Israel taking part in the American Jewish Congress-Foreign Ministry sponsored International Mayors Conference. He hadn’t planned on participating until the synagogue attack.
“I knew after October 27 that we had to be part of this,” Peduto said on Sunday, sitting in the lobby of Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, less than 24 hours after landing for his first visit to Israel. He had just come from visiting a memorial plaque in honor of the victims located at the KKL-JNF AND JNF-USA 9/11 Living Memorial Plaza in Jerusalem's Emek Ha'arazim.
“We had to be in Israel to speak out against antisemitism, and to remind people what the effects of hate speech are. Hate speech leads to hate crime.”
Peduto, a second term mayor, lives in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood seven blocks from where the attack took place.
“Squirrel Hill is Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood,” he said, referring to the long-running popular American kids TV show. “Fred Rogers lived there. We really take pride in being kindly people. It is a part of the Pittsburgh identity that we sort of enjoy – that we are blue-collar, tough and hard, but when it comes down to it, we are kind. Squirrel Hill is the most diverse community in all western Pennsylvania, and if [an attack] hits there, it has a ripple effect – if it could happen there, it could happen anywhere,” he said.
Peduto is proud of the way his city banded together after the ordeal. After the end of the shiva mourning period, Pittsburgh held a broad community gathering on the rainy Friday afternoon of November 10 at what he called a “holy place,” the point where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio River.
“We had members of every community there, anyone you could imagine – not just different religions, but different ethnic groups – sports legends, actors, famous Pittsburghers, Democrats and Republicans, they all gathered there.”
Peduto said that what struck him as especially poignant was that the gathering took place on the 80th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom in Nazi Germany.
“Eighty years after police officers turned their backs [in Germany], in Pittsburgh police officers, medics and firefighters – all our first responders – ran into the bullets,” he said. “Eighty years ago to the day that elected officials walked away, in Pittsburgh Democrats and Republicans worked together and said ‘Never again.’”
“Eighty years to the day when community leaders and other religious leaders ignored what was the beginning of the genocide, in Pittsburgh all religious leaders, all community leader, all civic leaders came together and said, ‘Not in our town,’ because an attack against the Jewish community is an attack against all of us.”
Peduto said that the message he wanted to share with the other nearly 30 mayors at the conference in Jerusalem was, “If you are going to be able to fight this kind of hatred, this type of bigotry, you can only fight it through love, you can only fight it through compassion, and through understanding. If we allow ourselves to be divided, we will all lose.”
Asked whether he agreed with voices raised in the aftermath of the attack blaming US President Donald Trump for creating an atmosphere of hate which made such an attack possible, Peduto noted that the suspect in the attack, Robert Gregory Bowers, said in a social media post immediately prior to the attack that migrants marching through Mexico on their way to the US were funded by wealthy Jews.
“I don’t want to place it all on the president,” Peduto said, “but I don’t think it is too far to say that the words of hate that were coming out of Washington – the words of hate on the refugee and migrant crisis – had a direct effect on the carrying out of this crime.”
The mayor said that the attack has “definitely” affected the Jewish community more than the community at large, and that he has visited the Jewish day schools in the area on a number of occasions since.
“Their realization of it is very real,” he said of elementary school children he visited. “They understand that they were targeted, that it happened in a synagogue.”
He said that his message to the students was simple: “We got the guy. He is in jail. He is gone, and you don’t have to worry about that. You see the police officers around your school. Go up to them and say ‘Hello.’ If you have questions, let them know. I don’t want you to be scared they are here. We just want you to be safe.”
Peduto said that one of the reasons he wanted to come to Israel was to learn from the country’s experience dealing with attacks. “Israel provides the cutting edge in security” he said, “and I want to learn about what is available.”