I think I heard gunshots.
When I texted this to my mom, my first thought was that a robbery had gone badly. Or maybe a drug deal. A robbery seemed more plausible, but neither scenario made sense in my quiet, tree-lined Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh.
Then I heard the sirens. The wailing got louder and louder as ambulances, SWAT vehicles, and patrol cars careened down my street as I watched from my window. My friend texted me that there had been a shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue at the end of my block. I am Jewish. I know people there. My friend lives across the street. I searched the Internet for confirmation. A lone British website was the first to report that, yes, there had been a shooting there—many shots fired, not just one. I soon learned that a man armed with several guns had gone into the Synagogue to kill as many Jews as he could, people who were gathered there for services.
I was in shock. How could this be happening in a country built on the principles of religious freedom and the right to peaceful assembly? How could it be happening in my city, Pittsburgh, ranked as one of America’s most livable? How could it be happening in my neighborhood, one of the most vibrant, diverse, and welcoming Jewish communities in the United States? I am young, but not so naïve as to believe that history has no contradictions or ironies. It is a pattern of zigzags, of forwards and backwards. But this—in 2018, at the end of my street—did not seem possible.
The truth is that this incident was a kind of robbery—a robbery of life, of 11 good people’s identities, of their dignity and potential for doing good, of their right to gather in their synagogue and study scripture. It was a robbery of humanity committed by one man whose ideological and political views were rooted in hatred and prejudice. At first, I felt sick and stunned. Then I felt sad. And then … angry. And then back to sad for all the police officers who got hurt. Then I felt horrified by the faces on TV–family members, friends, and neighbors of the victims whose lives were all torn apart by one man with an assault rifle.
But then as the hours went by, I felt emboldened. Several candlelight vigils were held in Squirrel Hill that first night; I went to the first and witnessed incredible support from all of Pittsburgh’s communities and religious denominations. I did not go to the second vigil; instead, I went to hear the powerfully positive speech of Magda Brown, a Holocaust survivor, sponsored by the Chatham University Women’s Institute and the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. Her message was clear: we will survive in the face of any type of hatred. She had survived the worst of it.
This past week, I have had far more questions than answers in my head. Did Robert Bowers ever know any Jews personally? Had he ever had a conversation with a Jewish person? Where had he learned his hate? Who were his teachers? Did the Internet play a role? What was he so afraid of that he would feel called to violently destroy so many lives, including his own? And what’s going on across our whole country these days as people separate themselves into camps of Left and Right, “us” and “them?” Can political extremists ever reach a middle ground?
In 2017, at the Student Diversity Leadership Conference in Anaheim, California, I was introduced to the power of dialogue in a safe space as a bridge to understanding, a means of connecting people across race, culture, religion, identity, and socioeconomic divides. There, selected high school students and faculty engaged in free and open discussions about politically divisive topics. Assumptions were challenged; opinions were evolving. Inspired, I applied to the Seeds of Peace Camp.
I was the first person from Pittsburgh to be accepted this program. I was required to recruit local educators to attend with me; one of the educators I recruited was Rachel Libros of Repair the World. I spent three weeks in Maine in daily dialogue with other participants, talking about our cultural identities and learning to share and listen in equal measure. The goal of the dialogues was not to convert anyone to a different position or angle on any issue, but simply to listen and understand different points of view. The goal was to give each of us the opportunity to hear other kids’ personal stories and experiences, and then reevaluate our own viewpoints. I realized that only by being exposed to another person’s story can we begin to truly understand our own. By learning the reasons for others’ differences and opinions, we begin to make sense of them and even respect them.
I have created a dialogue program for the Pittsburgh community in partnership with Repair the World. We are experiencing an increasingly divided nation and tragic events based on hatred that are taxing our politics and national identity. I am designing and leading dialogue sessions open to all faiths, identities, and backgrounds at Repair the World based on dialogue as a productive and peaceful tool to bring communities and narratives together over social, political, and economic divides that can breed hateful activity.
My experience in dialogue has cemented my view that dialogue is essential to solving the misunderstanding and fear that underlie so many of our conflicts. Robert Bowers was on a social media platform called Gab, where white supremacists talk to each other in their own sealed echo chamber, never engaging in dialogue with people “outside” or hearing other people’s stories and experiences. Seeds of hate are sown on that site. I’m reminded of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s powerful TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” The danger of talking or listening only to those who agree with you was shockingly apparent in the shooting in Squirrel Hill on Saturday. Bowers had cocooned himself in an airless space of ignorance, fear, and confusion. He brought death and destruction into the Tree of Life—and all for nothing.
When Bowers was admitted to the ER at Allegheny General Hospital for his own gunshot wounds, he shouted “I want to kill all the Jews.” He was being treated by a Jewish doctor and nurse.
I don’t believe that any one person has single-handedly caused this rise in hate speech. I do believe that failure to call out hate speech in our current political climate for what it is—a fomenter of extremism—has encouraged white supremacists and anti-Semites to be more vocal. When the President came to Tree of Life, I stood on my friend’s front lawn in front of the synagogue and held up a sign asking for hatred to stop. He saw me and my sign. I hope he got the message.
I will always wonder if safe and rational dialogue at home, at school, at a house of worship, or at a workplace might have saved Robert Bowers and his 11 victims from their tragic fate. We will never know. What I do know is that it couldn’t have hurt and might have helped.
Alexandra is a mentor with PeerCorps Pittsburgh and will be facilitating a dialogue on religion-based hate crimes at Repair the World Pittsburgh on December 1st. Click here to RSVP today.