Heartbroken in Pittsburgh

I thought that teaching the Kavanaugh hearings in a careful and respectful manner a few weeks ago would be the biggest teaching challenge of the semester.  I was wrong.  This weekend, as you have all no doubt heard, a gunman with a history of anti-Semitic rants and far too many legally acquired guns in his possession, entered a synagogue and killed 11 people there in the middle of Saturday morning prayers. 

Tree of Life is a synagogue in the heart of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh.  This is my home.  I went to Hebrew School at Tree of Life, my mom was a teacher there—it is one of several synagogues in this neighborhood that we have belonged to over the years and those killed are parents, cousins, dear friends of our community—two learning disabled men, leaders of the synagogue, the list is too painful.

As the newspapers have noted, Squirrel Hill has been a Jewish enclave in Pittsburgh for years but that also misses the point of its diversity.  My high school, Taylor Allderdice, had a mixed population of Jews and non-Jews; African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and whites; rich, middle-class, and working-class—it was a wonderful microcosm of the larger world.  The location of the interfaith vigil held on Saturday night is a sign of the neighborhood mix—in the church at the corner of the heart of the neighborhood, across from the Jewish Community Center, near the Jewish Home where my grandmother spent her last years, and next to the Episcopal school, St. Edmunds, where my brother went to grade school.  You get the picture.  

And now I have to stand up and ask how this happened.  How this mix of hate and racism and nationalism and lack of gun control turned into the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.  I can’t even write this without tearing up.  I was shaking from nervousness when talking about Kavanaugh.  How do I explain Saturday’s events?  How do we remind our students that older adults did not grow up with this violence?  That we actually could go to the movies without worrying about getting shot?  That active shooter drills for school children is not normal?  And that going to your house of worship—a synagogue, a church, a mosque, a Sikh temple—should not be life threatening?  My mom, also a professor, is in the midst of teaching the Holocaust to students who assumed, incorrectly, that the hate unleashed in the 1930’s had been safely put to bed.  A writer at the New Yorker put it this way—

They are the toxic politics of the President, and the racist, nationalist fervor that has been inflamed by his rise, and the success and the militancy of the gun lobby, which for decades has refused to acknowledge the obvious: that one way to have fewer killings is to make it harder for Americans to possess guns. Each of these is a national crisis on its own.

So, as a professor of dispute resolution, ethics, international conflict—what do I say to our students?  That the “A” in ADR can also mean activism?  That as lawyers they have a special responsibility for the future of the justice system?  That they will be in positions of power to prosecute and to defend…and to draft legislation that could change this calculus?  That, as young people, they have an even greater reason to invest in the future?

I have stopped pretending to be neutral—pretending that saying  there are “good people on both sides” and that “I’m a nationalist” do not have consequences.  That allowing candidates who espouse racist, anti-Semitic, or homophobic hate to run under a party’s banner without denouncing and de-funding these candidates does not perpetuate the mistaken belief that their beliefs are just a fringe.  And that sending thoughts and prayers are enough—the people killed on Saturday were already praying.   This shooter went after the synagogue because, in particular, it had promoted national refugee Shabbat last month.  This is the height of empathy—promoting others’ welfare because one remembers what it was like to be a refugee.  This attack is on all of us with differences—in religion, in race, in ethnicity, in anything—and in complete ignorance and in total denial of what makes America great.  Enough.   So in addition to all of the above I will also tell students this:  Vote next week as if your life depends on it—because it just might.

5 thoughts on “Heartbroken in Pittsburgh”

  1. Thank you Andrea. I am reminded of the quote by Elie Wiesel:

    “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

    We must, all of us, speak out including through our votes.

  2. Oh, Andrea, I stand in solidarity and in mourning with you and your Congregation. Though I have never been to Pittsburgh, as an American, progressive Jew, it felt like an attack in my home, to my people, too. And I raise the question as to how we go on as “neutrals”, in the face of evil, hatred and misinformation. Having coached a mock mediation last week at USC which was based upon “A Civil action”, I offer this suggestion: sometimes it’s good enough to teach true empathy. My students were unable to reach a settlement, because they were unprepared to address the needs of grieving parents who had suffered the loss of their children as the result of contaminated ground water. They left with a different mindset than they entered. If we can teach empathy, perhaps there is hope for ou4 future. Sending love to you and to your congregation. What an irony that it is a Tree of Life. But it gives me faith that Spring will come again.

  3. I am also heartbroken and very angry. Thank you for writing this, Andrea, and thanks to the other commenters here and on the listserv.

  4. Thanks for sharing your experience and perspective, Andrea.

    It is so sad that we live in such perilous times, when some leaders incite hatred and too many others enable them to do so.

    Unfortunately, our country has gone through many such times in the past. I just watched a documentary, The Eugenics Crusade, on the PBS Series, American Experience. The eugenics movement, which started in the late 19th Century and peaked in the 1930s, has eerie similarities to contemporary white nationalism, with a goal of perfecting the “white race” and keeping out foreigners and others who would supposedly harm society. Eventually, eugenics was discredited, but for a while, it garnered mainstream support. It led to the 1920s law that largely eliminated immigration and a Supreme Court decision, written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, approving forced sterilization.

    During the McCarthy Era, my mother was distraught. Having lived through other horrible times, my grandfather tried to comfort her saying, “This too shall pass.” Indeed, that version of McCarthyism did pass, though my mother couldn’t know that at the time.

    Unfortunately, it seems as if history is like a pendulum, swinging back and forth between times of empathy and hatred. Hopefully, this time of hatred too shall pass. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Hopefully, that arc will bend again soon.

    I want to pick up on Andrea’s point about voting. Paraphrasing the famous quote of labor martyr Joe Hill, we should both mourn and organize.

    The past two weekends, I have been knocking on doors encouraging people to vote in the upcoming elections. My experience was much like that described in this article, “Why I Love Political Canvassing. Knocking on strangers’ doors to talk politics is most people’s idea of a nightmare. But meeting citizens face to face is liberating.”

    When I met people supporting my candidate, I provided the following information:

    * the location of their polling station
    * the hours that the polls are open
    * encouragement to plan a time to vote (because research has shown that planning can increase the likelihood of actually voting)
    * id requirements (if any)
    * encouragement to encourage their friends and relatives to vote – and encourage their friends and relatives to vote

    You may not have the time to volunteer with a campaign, but hopefully you can spare some time to contact your friends and relatives, providing information like this and encouraging them to vote – and encouraging their friends and relatives to do so as well.

    You can communicate in person, by phone, email, text, or social media. I assume that individual contacts generally are more effective than social media postings, but it wouldn’t hurt to do both. Obviously, you can decide who to contact and what you want to say.

    As many have said, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

  5. Andrea, when I read your beautifully written piece last week, I had just been to a play the night before at an African-American theater in Fort Worth. The play was based on the bombing that killed four little girls in a Baptist church in Birmingham more than 50 years ago–but what I overhead people talking about on the way out was the synagogue.

    Maybe it helps to know that the community that cares is large and widespread. I’ve been knocking on doors, too.

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