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.

10 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.

  6. Thank you, Professor Schneider, for sharing your feelings and observations about the Pittsburgh shooting both in class and in this blog post. Although the past few months have been fraught with violence, social unrest, and sadness, you have brought forth a proactive perspective on difficult events. This encouraging stance is exactly what we as the next generation of legal professionals needs to hear upon our imminent entry into the legal profession.

    As I read more about the Pittsburgh shooting, I cannot help but think about the lessons we have learned in ADR this semester. We have learned the value of expressing our emotions and viewpoints to those with whom we are in dispute. We have learned the importance of simple phrases like “I’m sorry.” We have learned about the creative power of people working together toward a common goal, instead of digging their heels into their own positions.

    It seems as though society at large could benefit from some of the most fundamental lessons that we as law students learn in ADR. In fact, perhaps this is part of our mission as the next generation of lawyers in a world that is suffering: to remind people of the simple yet strong impact of communication, compassion, and collaboration. In this small way, maybe we can begin to heal a world continues to suffer in a climate of fear and derision.

  7. I agree with every single word written in this article. Being from the Pittsburgh area and having been to Squirrel Hill on multiple different occasions, this is one of the most diverse areas in the entire city. This was one of the saddest moments of my life to hear that something so devastating could happen in a city I call home. As a 23 year old law student my entire life has consisted of tragedy after tragedy year after year. I can attest that worrying at a movie theatre and an active school shooter drill at school is completely normal thing for my generation and younger. This should not be the case. Nobody should have to worry about these things on a daily basis, but this is the new America. It is clear that things need to change and that change needs to start at the top. For all the talk of “Make America Great Again” it seems that things only get progressively worse. When the person who is supposed to be looked at as a leader and is meant to inspire hope and positive change allows such hatred and bigotry against all people to persist, how can we expect things to really get better. People now think these types of racist and anti-Semitic ideals are acceptable because those in charge allow this to happen without ever addressing the issue. It has come to the point where we all need to put our differences aside and come together so that something like this never happens again. So we can all live in a world where all types of people are accepted and individuals are judged on the basis of their character and not their race or religion. As a future lawyer I hope that I can be a positive source of positive change in this country.

  8. The shooting at the Tree Of Life brought me back to the shooting in Oak Creek at the Sikh Temple. For many of us in the Indian community, this attack shook us. However, I believed it would get better. After all, we had Obama, and Eric Holder came to WI in response to the shooting.

    But things got worse. He-who-should-not-be-president was elected on a platform of division and hate. As a gay man, I was more disturbed by sight of the VP lurking like spider in the shadow of The President. I remember on the night of the election a friend of mine, also a minority, texted me “What are we gonna do?” One of the few times I was unnerved by a simple text. I knew that I would not be neutral again.

    Professor, I was glad that you did not take a neutral stance. Being a neutral at this time in history is irresponsible. We are at war, and I don’t write this lightly, with white nationalist ideology. They’re strengthened by their victory in 2016. Yet, we have to be stronger because we have so much more to lose. If we take a neutral stance, we will lose.

    Since entering ADR, listening to the lectures, I’ve wondered how ADR could help. To be frank, I don’t know if ADR would work on the nationalists themselves. I’m convinced these people, like their president, are too far gone. But ADR could work on the people who are neutral or leaning towards the nationalist ideology. We must negotiate with their sense of decency.

    There are people who do feel as though the progress we have made in the last 80 years has harmed them in some imagined way. Whether it is the legalization of gay marriage, the use of affirmative action or something else, we need to assure people that we are not here to wreck or take away their already existing rights. This can only be done by speaking to one another, by reaching out, by sharing our own stories. In a sense, this will be like mediation.

    Finally, I hope law students and attorneys of all ages realize what is happening in our country is not normal or acceptable. To fight this, we must be the leaders who take this on, and the only way we can do that is by showing everyone the real dangers of neutrality.

  9. I really appreciate this entire posting but your note about taking a side about issues really stood to me. When I was growing up, I was told constantly to not take sides, so as not to upset anyone. As I have moved to different cities over the years, I realize that there are certain issues that you have to take a stand on.

    Having empathy for the situations that other communities are going through is something I want to provide to younger generations in my community. When a tragedy like this occurs, it is important remind ourselves that regardless of our unique circumstances, we are all people.

    As a current law student, I hope to continue to remind myself that regardless of where my life takes me there are certain things in this world that you need to stand up for.

  10. First, I would like to commend you on how you dealt with the Kavanaugh hearings in class. Your words were frank, compelling, and a reminder to many of us that implicit biases exist in all of us. Regarding the Pittsburgh shooting, my heart cries out with you. As a Christian who grew up attending church every Sunday, it is discomforting to witness the numerous attacks on churches and synagogues. It is discomforting because as a child, I was always taught the church is a place of love and peace. A place where one can get away from the troubles of this world and find comfort. This is not to say that churches or synagogues no longer hold these traits or characteristics, but the number of mass shootings that has occurred, within the last couple of years, definitely affects the churches’ narrative. Just think, how can one focus on worshiping and find comfort when they are constantly looking over their shoulders in fear of their life? that a shooting may occur. There needs to be a change. And when I say change, I do not mean just gun laws, but also change on how the media portrays the shooters. This is a little off topic, but it is worth noting. It a shame that when White American commit a crime of this magnitude, they are seen to have a mental disorder, but when African American commit a crime, they are Thugs. It makes no sense. We must do better as a country because hate is not born it is taught. (This may be a comment for another day.)

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