Uniting against hate: Lessons from Squirrel Hill’s resilience

In the face of unspeakable tragedy, a community can rise above hatred, embracing education, unity and empathy as tools for transformation.

A makeshift shrine to the victims of the mass shooting at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Credit: Brendt A. Petersen.
A makeshift shrine to the victims of the mass shooting at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Credit: Brendt A. Petersen.
Steve Rosenberg
Steve Rosenberg
Steve Rosenberg is principal of the GSD Group and board chair of the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. He is the author of Make Bold Things Happen: Inspirational Stories From Sports, Business and Life.

Five years have passed since that dreadful day on Oct. 27, 2018, when the tranquility of my hometown in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh was shattered by a massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Eleven Jewish worshippers were shot and killed during Shabbat-morning services. As a product of this closely-knit neighborhood, the scars of that tragedy remain etched in our hearts. However, the remarkable resilience that has emerged from the ashes continues to inspire. On this solemn fifth anniversary, I reflect on how Squirrel Hill’s enduring spirit can guide us in the ongoing battle against Jew-hatred, using our community’s initiatives as a template for change.

  1. Community-Based Education: Education is the cornerstone of progress, and our neighborhood has embraced this truth wholeheartedly. Squirrel Hill’s schools have embarked on a mission to integrate Holocaust education into their curricula, ensuring that the horrors of the past are never forgotten. This effort not only imparts historical knowledge but fosters empathy and critical thinking. By extending this model, other communities can prioritize comprehensive education on the Holocaust and the broader history of anti-Semitism. These lessons can be augmented with personal testimonies from survivors and their families, bridging the gap between history and human experience.
  1. Interfaith Engagement: Squirrel Hill has long been a hub of religious diversity, and the Tree of Life tragedy prompted us to strengthen our bonds across faiths. Interfaith gatherings—where individuals from different religious backgrounds come together to share their experiences and common values—have become a norm. These events spark conversations that dispel misconceptions and promote understanding. Such interactions challenge stereotypes and build bridges, eroding the foundation of Jew-hatred. Communities worldwide can adopt this practice, encouraging interfaith dialogue that unites rather than divides.
  1. Online Counter-Narratives: In the digital age, combating hatred extends to the online realm. Squirrel Hill’s residents recognized this and took action by launching social-media campaigns that spread messages of tolerance and solidarity. Harnessing the power of social platforms, they pushed back against the venomous rhetoric of hate groups. By consistently amplifying counter-narratives, we can create a digital space that champions inclusivity and actively dismantles stereotypes. Online education modules, engaging videos, and interactive websites can serve as tools to educate against Jew-hatred, reaching a wider audience and fostering a more informed online community.
  1. Grassroots Initiatives: Our community’s response to the tragedy was marked by grassroots initiatives, each driven by a burning desire for change. Community organizations hosted seminars, workshops and panel discussions that facilitated candid conversations about the roots of hatred and how to uproot them. These gatherings encouraged introspection and empowered individuals to confront their biases. Adopting this approach, communities can establish local task forces or organizations dedicated to addressing hate speech and discrimination. By pooling resources and engaging with experts, they can create a sustained movement that pushes for policy changes and public-awareness campaigns.

This is not a cure-all, nor is it a recipe for guaranteed success. We all must be diligent and power forward together. As a people, we are approximately 16 million worldwide—less than 2% of the total population—yet Jews make up well over 55% of all hate crimes. This is an unimaginable statistic that must not go unanswered. While I try to present some reasonable ideas here, we need leaders willing to stand up and stand against the haters. Institutions like the City University of New York, which doubles down at every possible turn by hiring anti-Israel, Jew-hating professors and allowing antisemitic students to serve as leaders, go unchallenged. This cannot continue.

As the fifth anniversary of the mass shooting approaches, the legacy of Pittsburgh stands as a beacon of hope. It reminds us that even in the face of unspeakable tragedy, a community can rise above hatred, embracing education, unity and empathy as tools for transformation. By following this example, we can take meaningful steps towards a future free from the scourge of antisemitism and Jew-hatred.

The journey ahead is not an easy one. Jew-hatred continues to rear its ugly head in various forms—from online hate speech to violent acts against Jewish communities. Squirrel Hill teaches us that through resilience and unwavering determination, we can counteract these forces of darkness. As a product of this community, I continue to be committed to fostering change by championing education, dialogue and community-building in the face of hatred. By doing so, we honor the memory of the victims while paving the way for a more tolerant and just world. The 11 beautiful lives deserve a world where we all do better.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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