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Squirrel Hill residents look to election to combat hateful political rhetoric

“For my part, I’m going to be phone banking for some candidates between now and Election Day," said one neighborhood resident.
Image: People visit an impromptu memorial at the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday's shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania
Mourners visit an impromptu memorial at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 28, 2018.Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

PITTSBURGH — The shooting that killed 11 elderly Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill has some residents looking toward Election Day when they can try to end a hate-fueled political discussion.

Jeremy Burton, 33, who attended an interfaith vigil Sunday with his wife, Lynn Hyde, 36, said the attack has made it clear to him that citizens need to address anti-Semitism and hate as well as gun laws at the ballot box this year.

The shooting, they said, would not push them away from the Jewish faith but would motivate them to act in ways that could help move the country forward.

“For my part, I’m going to be phone banking for some candidates between now and Election Day,” said Burton, who noted that he wore his yarmulke in public Sunday as an act of solidarity. “We’ve also talked about donating to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, donating to the Pittsburgh Police and the Allegheny County Police because of the support they deserve.

"We’re going to put our money and our time where our hearts are and show up and be present.”

Guns are often central to the political discussion in Pennsylvania, especially here in Allegheny County, which has the most number of firearm dealers, firearm sales and license to carry permits issued in the state, according to the 2017 Pennsylvania State Police Firearms Annual Report.

Pennsylvania is in the middle of a heated midterm election with 18 congressional races, as well as a senate and gubernatorial contest.

The day before the shooting the two candidates battling for the U.S. Senate seat addressed guns at a debate in Pittsburgh, less than seven miles from Tree of Life Synagogue.

Sen. Bob Casey, a Democratic incumbent vying for a third term, said he supported banning assault weapons, limiting high-capacity magazines and requiring background checks for online gun sales. Congressman Lou Barletta, Casey's Republican challenger, said he supported a bump stock ban and expanding background checks, but noted his opposition to magazine limits and said a broad definition of assault-style weapons would infringe on the rights of gun owners.

"Bad people get guns," Barletta said. "They don't go to gun shops. They can get guns from gangs. All we're going to do if we start infringing on law-abiding citizens, we're going to force people to buy guns from drug dealers and gang members."

Rabbi Chuck Diamond, who led the Tree of Life synagogue for seven years, said he hoped elected officials would respond with some consequence after the shooting that left 11 dead and six injured.

“I wish the politicians on both sides of the aisle would get off their rear ends and do something significant about it,” the rabbi said. "That’s what’s frustrating.”

Barletta, a noted immigration opponent, also turned his attention at the debate on the migrant caravan headed for the United States, describing it as an "invasion."

To many Squirrel Hill residents, it's that type of language that is at issue and encouraged them to go to the polls. They said the characterization of immigrants as bad for country has allowed the anti-Semitic and xenophobic American fringe to enter the mainstream, and it requires voting and political action to counteract.

They were quick to point to the current administration's policies toward immigrants and refugees, the white nationalists at Charlottesville, Virginia, and other acts of violence that targeted minorities and journalists in the United States.

Dennis Jett, a former ambassador to Peru and Mozambique during the Clinton administration who lives in Squirrel Hill, said that President Donald Trump is at fault, and could possibly be making the situation worse.

He said the commander-in-chief’s tendency to blame immigrants and vilify his political opponents provides space to the extremist and anti-Semitic views of the accused shooter, Robert Bowers, to catch hold.

“He felt validated and encouraged to do it by the President of the United States who will not stop with his racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant bashing. Whether it was the Muslim ban, building the wall, the caravan from Central America, it seems as though every day [Trump] says something that validates what Bowers has done,” Jett, 73, said. “That’s where we are, and that where we’ll be unless something changes on Election Day.”

While many homeowners used yard signs in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood to show their strong preference for Casey and Gov. Tom Wolf, also a Democrat, over their Republican challengers, those too young to vote in the area also looked to act in the wake of Saturday’s shooting.

Emily Passman, 17, has lived in Squirrel Hill for most of her life. She said it is hard to think that her home would be considered alongside other major American mass shooting tragedies, such as those that occurred in Parkland, Florida, or Newtown, Connecticut.

Rather than reflect on that, however, she and eight of her classmates decided to organize a vigil hours after the shooting on Saturday — an event that brought more than 1,000 people.

“You can be upset about something or you can take action,” said Passman, who noted that they nearly cancelled the vigil out of fear for their safety. “At that point, we didn’t want to be so alone and we didn’t want the community not do anything. We wanted us all to be together.”

The rally organized by this small group of teenagers ended with a chant: “Vote, vote, vote!”

The teens said they did not intend for that to become the focus of the event, but they did think it encouraging that people felt compelled to act, whether by organizing a vigil or voting next Tuesday.

“We did want to promote change, but we also wanted to be respectful of the event and focus on bringing people together,” said Sophia Levin, 15, who helped plan the vigil. “We thought that it was good if people could understand there was something they could do — even if they felt it was small — because [voting is] really big.”