Community's rabbi says they'd welcome the president

Pittsburgh survivor asks Trump not to come, likens him to Nazis; others disagree

‘We have no use for’ US president, declares Tree of Life congregant Barry Werber, who escaped shooting by hiding in closet; Holocaust survivor Judah Samet takes a different view

In this October 28, 2018 frame from video, Barry Werber describes how he survived the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting during an interview, in Pittsburgh, US. (AP Photo/Robert Bumsted)
In this October 28, 2018 frame from video, Barry Werber describes how he survived the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting during an interview, in Pittsburgh, US. (AP Photo/Robert Bumsted)

A survivor of the massacre of Jewish worshipers in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue on Monday said US President Donald Trump wasn’t welcome in the city and compared him to Germany’s Nazi party during World War II. But the community’s rabbi and another congregant, a Holocaust survivor who was late for services and entered the parking lot when the attack was unfolding, said the president would be welcomed.

Asked during an interview with the Associated Press about Trump potentially visiting the community after an anti-Semitic gunman fatally shot 11 people, Barry Werber answered: “We hope he doesn’t. We have no use for him.

“It’s part of his program to instigate his base, and this base in many cases have the basest feelings in the world,” Werber said.

“He’s calling himself a nationalist. The last political group that I heard had called themselves nationalists were the Nazis,” said the 76-year-old.

The synagogue’s rabbi, Jeffrey Myers, by contrast, said he would be willing to sit down with Trump to talk about the shooting. “The community would welcome his presence here, because he is our president… This has nothing to do with politics in America. This is hate,” Myers told Israel’s Hadashot TV.

“We turn to the leaders of our country,” Myers also said in an AP interview. “We’ve got to stop hate and it can’t just be to say we need to stop hate. We need to do, we need to act, to tone down rhetoric. Hate is not welcome here in Pittsburgh. It should not be welcome in our borders at all.”

And a Holocaust survivor who was a few minutes late for services on Shabbat, and thus was not in the synagogue, said he was unfazed by Trump calling himself a “nationalist,” and did not believe the president was inciting anti-Semitism. “Is he a nationalist? To me, America comes first,” Judah Samet, 80, told the Washington Post. “Israel is important, but since I’ve been living here all this time, I’m very patriotic,” he added.

The weekend massacre — which took place a week and a half before the US midterm elections — heightened tensions around the country and came just a day after the arrest of the Florida man accused of sending a wave of pipe bombs to Trump critics.

US President Donald Trump speaks about crude pipe bombs targeting Hillary Clinton, former President Barack Obama, CNN and others, during an event on the opioid crisis, in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, October 24, 2018. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The mail bomb attacks and the bloodshed in Pittsburgh set off debate over whether the corrosive political rhetoric in Washington and beyond contributed to the violence and whether Trump himself bears any blame.

Werber lashed out at the National Rifle Association, saying its political power was so great that there was no way to “take them out of the equation.”

“Who needs an AR-15? Who needs a semiautomatic weapon?” he asked.

Robert Gregory Bowers, 46, who is accused of the massacre and was shot and wounded in a gun battle with police, was released from a hospital and made a court appearance Monday on charges he killed 11 people and wounded six in what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in US history.

Driver’s License photo of Pittsburgh synagogue massacre suspect Robert Bowers. (Pennsylvania DOT)

Federal prosecutors set in motion plans to seek the death penalty against Bowers, who authorities say expressed hatred of Jews during the rampage and later told police that “I just want to kill Jews” and that “all these Jews need to die.”

Werber and other terrorized worshipers survived by concealing themselves in a supply closet as the gunman stepped over the body of a man he had just shot and killed, entered their darkened hiding spot and looked around.

“I can’t say anything, and I’m barely breathing,” Werber recalled. “He didn’t see us, thank God.”

Apparently unable to see Werber and the other congregants in the darkness, Bowers walked back out.

A day later, Werber called the gunman “a maniac” and “a person who has no control of his baser instincts.”

“I don’t know why he thinks the Jews are responsible for all the ills in the world, but he’s not the first and he won’t be the last. Unfortunately, that’s our burden to bear,” Werber said. “It breaks my heart.”

A Pittsburgh Police officer walks past the Tree of Life Synagogue and a memorial of flowers and stars in Pittsburgh on October 28, 2018. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

The attack spurred a number of fundraising efforts. A crowdfunding campaign called Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue raised more than $90,000 for survivors and families, while a fundraiser led by a graduate student in Washington had taken in nearly $545,000 as of Monday morning, with funds to go to the congregation.

Bowers killed eight men and three women before a tactical police team tracked him down and shot him, authorities said. Six people were injured, including four officers.

He apparently posted an anti-Semitic message on a social media account linked to him just a few minutes before the rampage.

Some of the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, October 27, 2018. Top row, from left to right: Cecil Rosenthal, Richard Gottfried, Melvin Wax. Bottom row: Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, Danny Stein. (Courtesy of David DeFelice via AP, Barry Werber via AP, Avishai Ostrin)

Speaking at a vigil in Pittsburgh on Sunday night, Tree of Life Rabbi Myers said about a dozen people had gathered in the main sanctuary when Bowers walked in and began shooting. Seven of his congregants were killed, he said.

“My holy place has been defiled,” he said.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha Congregation stands across the street from the synagogue in Pittsburgh, October 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The youngest of the 11 dead was 54, the oldest 97. The toll included a husband and wife.

The first funeral — for Cecil Rosenthal and his younger brother, David — was set for Tuesday.

Bowers shot his victims with an AR-15, used in many of the nation’s mass shootings, and three handguns, all of which he owned legally and had a license to carry, according to a law enforcement official who wasn’t authorized to discuss the investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Bowers was a long-haul trucker who worked for himself, US Attorney Scott Brady said Sunday. Little else was known about the suspect, who had no apparent criminal record.

Bowers was charged with 11 state counts of criminal homicide, six counts of aggravated assault and 13 counts of ethnic intimidation. He was also charged in a 29-count federal criminal complaint that included counts of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death — a federal hate crime — and using a firearm to commit murder.

Of the six wounded, four remained in the hospital Sunday night, and two — including a 40-year-old officer — were in critical condition.

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