Pittsburgh resident Judah Samet recently returned from Washington, D.C., where he was both the guest of the White House and feted by members of Congress at the 2019 State of the Union Address. During the Feb. 5 event, President Donald Trump singled out Samet.
“Tonight, we are also joined by Pittsburgh survivor Judah Samet,” the president said. “He arrived at the synagogue as the massacre began. But not only did Judah narrowly escape death last fall — more than seven decades ago, he narrowly survived the Nazi concentration camps.”
After Trump announced “today is Judah’s 81st birthday,” attendees sang “Happy Birthday” as Trump mimicked being a conductor.
Now back in Pittsburgh, Samet described the moment as “unbelievable.”
“One of the top assistants to Donald Trump said to me, ‘Judah, we just made history. There was never any singing in Congress. You are the first one.’”
Samet recalled another aide telling him, “Judah, you united the country for two minutes. While they were singing, you have united the country like nobody ever has.”
Apart from the “wonderful” attention he received during the address, the hours beforehand were also enjoyable, said Samet. During a visit to the Oval Office, he had the opportunity to speak with the president. Samet told him, “Baruch atah Hashem Eloheinu melech ha’olam shehalk mikvodo l’basar vadam, God who shares His honor with a human being and that’s you, Mr. President.”
“And then I also told him chazak ve’ematz, which means ‘be strong and courageous,’” Samet recalled.
“I explained to him, this is what Moses told Joshua, when he handed him the mantle and he proceeded and got up on top of the mountain where he died.”
At the conclusion of the exchange, Samet said, “they usually have one handshake. [Trump] turned to me, shook my hand twice, and he thanked me.”
Other moments of the trip were also memorable, like meeting First Lady Melania Trump and speaking about European borders, he added. The First Lady is “very cordial” and “very nice,” said Samet.
He also spent time with other members of Trump’s family.
“I met Ivanka and Jared and we almost became buddies. I said, ‘You know, Ivanka, as a convert, you are beloved by God more than he loves the most righteous. It says in the Talmud that when a convert passes, his soul comes closer to God than the most righteous do.’ She loved it. She told it to Jared.”
In visiting the nation’s capital, Samet said he only experienced one discomfort. After entering the House Chamber wearing his yarmulke, the Holocaust survivor was approached by a “worker” who told him “nobody wears a hat here,” Samet said.
The octogenarian removed his yarmulke and speculated why he would be asked to uncover his head.
“I don’t know, maybe they’re afraid that somebody might hide something in his yarmulke. I don’t know how you can hide because you go through so much security,” said Samet. “I regretted that I took it off … I wear this Bukharian yarmulke all the time. A part of it is because I came from a very Chasidic family and as I’m getting older, I’m becoming a little bit more Orthodox, and the other reason is it keeps my head warm.”
Other than that, however, Samet said he appreciated the opportunities afforded in Washington, D.C., such as meeting fellow Pittsburgher and State of the Union special guest Officer Timothy Matson, who was injured in the Oct. 27 shooting at the Tree of Life building.
Ultimately, there were “two aims” in going to Washington, explained Samet.
“I wanted to raise the kavod [honor] for the Jewish people, first of all, which I think I believe I succeeded from the accolades that I’m receiving all over wherever I go, you know, people thank me and so forth. And the second thing was I wanted to raise the knowledge about Pittsburgh. Some people still think Pittsburgh is a coal town. They don’t know that Pittsburgh has become a powerhouse of technology.”
Additionally, with Purim being so close, the Jewish holiday was also on the survivor’s mind.
“I was thinking about Esther and Mordechai, how they saved the Jews of Persia and the Persian Empire.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.