By Jessica Resnick-Ault
PITTSBURGH (Reuters) – Grieving families and friends gathered on Tuesday for the first funerals for victims of a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, as protesters prepared for a visit by U.S. President Donald Trump amid accusations his rhetoric had encouraged anti-Semitic extremists.
Nearly 2,000 mourners from across the United States came to offer condolences to the relatives of David Rosenthal, 54, and Cecil Rosenthal, 59, at the Rodef Shalom synagogue in the Pennsylvania city as police officers stood outside.
The two brothers were among the 11 mostly elderly congregants shot to death on Saturday at the nearby Tree of Life synagogue.
Funerals were also being held for Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, and Daniel Stein, 71.
“Words can’t describe it. It’s so tragic. The world we live in leaves individuals who are so deranged to take actions like this,” Bob Farrow, who knows members of the Rosenthal family, said outside the Rodef Shalom temple.
“Everyone wants to show their support of the Jewish community,” said Farrow, who is not Jewish.
Robert Bowers, 46, is accused of storming into the Tree of Life synagogue yelling “All Jews must die” and opening fire on members of three congregations holding Sabbath prayer services there.
A federal judge on Monday ordered Bowers held without bail.
The attack, which the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) described as the deadliest targeting Jews in the United States, has heightened a national debate over Trump’s rhetoric, which critics say has contributed to a surge in white nationalist and neo-Nazi activity.
The Trump administration has rejected the notion that he has encouraged far-right extremists who have embraced him.
Trump’s visit comes just seven days before elections that will determine the balance of power in Congress. The Republicans currently control both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The Republican president said he would visit hospitalized police officers and other people wounded in the shooting.
“I’m just going to pay my respects,” Trump told Fox News on Monday night. “I would have done it even sooner, but I didn’t want to disrupt anymore than they already had disruption.”
The top four U.S. congressional leaders – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi – declined to join Trump in Pittsburgh, two sources familiar with the planning said.
An aide to McConnell said the Kentucky Republican was unable to attend because of a conflict with events in his home state.
An aide to Ryan said he was not able to travel to Pittsburgh on such short notice.
The ADL, a nonprofit group dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of hate, said last week that far-right extremists had stepped up “online propaganda offensives” in the run-up to the elections to attack and to try to intimidate Jews.
“I spend half of each year in Germany. I have seen how another country with a much tougher background has dealt with this, starting at ground zero,” said Walter Jacob, a rabbi at Rodef Shalom.
‘YOU ARE NOT WELCOME’
Members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community said they would protest against Trump on Tuesday afternoon.
“The gunman who tore apart our neighborhood believed your lies about the immigrant caravan in Mexico,” protest organizers said in an announcement, referring to a group of migrants who are trekking through Mexico toward the United States. “He believed anti-Semitic lies that Jews were funding the caravan”
In a social media post on Saturday, Bowers, the suspect, had accused the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a group that helps refugees, of bringing “invaders in that kill our people.”
The protest announcement echoed an open letter from a group of local Jewish leaders who told Trump: “You are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you fully denounce white nationalism.”
More than 43,000 people have signed the letter, organized and posted online by the Pittsburgh chapter of Bend the Arc, a Jewish organization opposed to what it calls “the immoral agenda of the Trump administration and the Republican Party.”
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said he was also against Trump’s visit because it would coincide with the first funerals.
Peduto, a Democrat, said Trump should wait until all the funerals were held, adding that the visit and additional security measures entailed would distract attention from the “priority” of burying the dead.
On Monday, a U.S. magistrate judge ordered Bowers held without bond. The onetime truck driver, a Pittsburgh resident who frequently posted anti-Semitic material online and was described by neighbors as a loner, was charged with 29 federal felony counts. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
Prosecutors have said they are treating the mass shooting as a hate crime.
In addition to the 11 worshipers who were killed, six people, including four police officers, were wounded before Bowers was shot by police and surrendered.
(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York and Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan in Washington; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)