Tree of Life congregant, wounded officer invited to State of the Union |
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Emily Balser

A Holocaust survivor who narrowly avoided the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue will be one of several Western Pennsylvanians on hand Tuesday night when President Trump delivers his State of the Union address to Congress.

Judah Samet, a resident of Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood who turns 81 on Tuesday, was invited by the White House through the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.

“Of course, I am very honored,” Samet told the Tribune-Review in a phone interview from Washington. “(Trump) invited me, I was told, because I represented two of the biggest tragedies for the Jewish people in the last hundred years.”

The White House also invited Pittsburgh police Officer Timothy Matson, 41, who was shot more than a half-dozen times inside the synagogue during the Oct. 27 massacre that left 11 people dead and seven injured.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, invited Pittsburgh International Airport-based TSA agent Monica Hughes, 44, of Penn Hills to be his guest after seeing a Facebook post she wrote during the recent federal government shutdown.

The Hungarian-born Samet, a former Israeli Army paratrooper who survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as a child, was four minutes late to Saturday services at Tree of Life on Oct. 27. By the time he pulled into a handicapped parking space at the synagogue, Samet could hear shooting and was urged by another man to leave the area.

He stayed in his car and watched accused gunman Robert Bowers engage in a shootout with police outside the building.

Samet said his invitation includes a noon meeting with President Trump in the White House’s Oval Office.

“I’m going to say a Jewish blessing that you say only when you meet a head of state,” Samet said. “I have permission to do it.”

Samet describes himself as a Trump supporter.

“I like him very much. He is strongly pro-Israel,” Samet said. “That a man would go outright for Israel and declare for Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel … that was something new.”

Pittsburgh Public Safety officials said Matson’s acceptance of the White House invitation had nothing to do with politics.

The department is “honored that Officer Matson, on behalf of all city first responders, is being recognized for his life-saving efforts,” spokesman Chris Togneri said.

Matson was part of a SWAT team that exchanged fire with Bowers on the third floor of the Squirrel Hill synagogue. One of five officers injured at Tree of Life, Matson remained in critical condition for days after the shooting.

Hughes, Casey’s guest, said dealing with the shutdown was difficult, especially with it happening around the holidays and in the middle of winter, when utility bills are higher than normal. She said she hopes to hear Trump say during his address that such an event won’t happen again.

“(We) kind of felt like pawns and held hostage in a situation we have no control over,” Hughes said of the 35-day shutdown. “It wasn’t fair.”

Casey said he was “pleased that a dedicated public servant like Monica will be able to join me for the president’s State of the Union Address. … I am hopeful that her attendance will inspire others in Washington to remain committed to fighting for working families who depend on a functioning government.”

Watch the SOTU

The 2019 State of the Union address will take place on Tuesday, February 5, starting at 9 p.m. It will be carried by all major television networks, including ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and Fox. C-SPAN and the White House plan to steam the address as do several Internet news outlets.

Staff writer Emily Balser contributed to this report. Paul Guggenheimer and Megan Guza are Tribune-Review staff writers.

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