The ballot boxes may be closed, but the president still remains on many people’s minds. No, not that one — on the eve of the election, five decades ago, President John F. Kennedy visited McKeesport to campaign for Democratic representatives. Kennedy’s remarks aroused nearly 20,000 attendees gathered on Lysle Boulevard between City Hall and the Daily News Building.
Almost a half-century later, several of those present remembered the president’s comments not as much for their content, but for the time of their delivery.
At 10:30 a.m. on a sunny Saturday morning, Oct. 13, 1962, Kennedy spoke from a wooden lectern above a makeshift stage beneath a shaded canopy.
“It was so unusual that we broke shul,” said Debbie Eisner, 62, who with her mother and older brother walked from nearby Gemilas Chesed Congregation to hear the president speak.
“It was shocking to me that services stopped. We left, but it was explained that this was a monumental historic event and we had an obligation to participate,” noted Alan Iszauk, 64.
Gemilas Chesed’s then rabbi, Rabbi Yitzchak Irvin Chinn, “decided that it was very important that all of the Jewish community be there and be present at that rally to show honor to the president,” explained Rabbi David Landesman, Chinn’s son-in-law, in an interview for the upcoming documentary “Missing McKeesport.”
In order to attend Kennedy’s remarks, Chinn interrupted not only Saturday prayers, but also special additional services for the holiday of Sukkot, which was occurring that day.
“We davened shacharis and then we had a break, and we all walked down,” noted Landesman.
“The entire congregation filed out and sort of followed the rabbi to this event. It was a migration from the synagogue,” said Bruce Ungar, who was 10 years old at the time.
“We walked over to see the president and to listen to him speak because [Chinn] felt that it was important for the Jewish community to be identified not as a peg in a hole that it didn’t fit into or as a tolerated minority, but that the Jewish community in McKeesport was part and parcel of the larger community,” said Landesman.
Chinn’s decision to disturb regularly scheduled prayers for Kennedy’s address made sense, explained Irv Luzer, formerly of McKeesport.
“Rabbi Chinn was very religious but he also had a deep understanding of current events and important events,” said Luzer, who saw Chinn preside over his bar mitzvah in 1958.
“The rabbi thought that it was pretty important that the leader of the free world was going to be speaking within walking distance of us,” echoed Ungar.
Looking back after all these years, the event was “striking,” said Iszauk. “It was incredibly dramatic, the multitude of people was staggering, and we were dressed for shul but everybody else was in coats and ties and hats and gloves, and it was a huge event for the city.”
“I think that was the biggest thing that happened to McKeesport since Barnum & Bailey brought the old circus there,” added Luzer.
Kennedy spoke that morning for approximately 10 minutes. With emphasis on health care, jobs, housing and global security, the president implored listeners to support the Democratic Party in the upcoming election.
“Can you tell me one single piece of progressive legislation of benefit to the people of this country that the Republican Party has sponsored in 30 years? Because if you can’t, I can tell you a hundred pieces of legislation that they’ve opposed — from the beginning of the right of labor to organize, and social security and minimum wage, and housing legislation, and all the rest that make it possible for us to produce a better life for our people,” Kennedy remarked.
The campaign is not about “bands or balloons or cheering. It’s a judgment as to what you want this country to do in 1962, because the kind of House and Senate you elect will hold office in 1963 and ’64, and will make a judgment as to whether it will accept and support and pass legislation which we need for this State and country to go ahead,” he said.
Kennedy had one of the most distinctive voices of modern presidents, but the cadence and crescendo of his remarks — available to listeners online — is not what comes to mind, said Ungar. Rather, it was the circumstance, the setting and the company of those present. “I remember that the crowd was enthusiastic and that I was not quite sure of what was going on, but also enthusiastic just being in the crowd. … I remember the feeling of awe and wonderment that seemed to permeate at this person who seemed to be a pretty great person who was coming through and addressing us.”
“I just remember the overall picture,” agreed Eisner. And “when it was all over we all walked back to services.”
As the then 8-year-old trekked back to Gemilas Chesed with her mother and older brother, Ungar followed with his Hungarian grandfather, who had come to America in 1918.
“It’s a fond memory,” Ungar said. “Walking anywhere with your grandfather hand-in-hand, it’s a pretty good memory.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.