Following the terrorist attack at the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, 2018, Sai Koros and Claire Singer decided it was time to get political. Both students at the University of Pittsburgh at the time, the pair created Maspeak, a network for Jewish student advocacy focused on social justice.
Maspeak, which means “enough” in Hebrew, started as a group chat that informed its participants about open letters, peaceful protests and rallies in the wake of the shooting. But the nascent organization turned into something more and started on-campus meetings after receiving a charter from Pitt. Soon, Koros and Singer had created a Jewish community that was both politically active and LGBTQ+ friendly.
Singer felt a political response to the attack was important because the shooting itself was political.
“To put it simply, it was a white nationalistic terroristic attack directly targeting elders of our community to whom we all feel connected,” Koros said. “When it’s so close, it’s a wake-up call.”
Koros was disappointed by the initial response to the shooting. “The primary narrative people were speaking out against was hate.” But Koros felt it was more particular than that.
“It was white nationalism. It was an attack on the Jewish people, as a result, I felt it was important to stand in solidarity with other groups that were targeted by this specific stream.”
Some of the groups and causes that Maspeak aligned itself with included the Purple Rose Project, which supported Antwon Rose’s family, and the Muslim community after the Christchurch, New Zealand, shooting.
Both Singer and Koros believe that it is important to stop and consider what these types of attacks mean to those affected by them.
Singer mentioned that after Oct. 27, homecoming weekend continued at the university. A dean explained it was important to show that the school’s activities wouldn’t be affected by terrorist events like the shooting. Singer said she remembered thinking, “This is the type of thing we should be stopped by. We should stop and reflect on how we can build across communities and how we can become stronger.”
Koros, who graduated last year and now works at the university, pointed out that the LGBTQ+ community is already invested in battling extremism, hate and white nationalism.
“I think LGBTQ+ people tend to already be invested in their own liberation and the liberation of others,” Koros said. “Because of that, there were connections we were able to form and energy we could create with people in the same place we were politically.”
The need for a group that was Jewish, political and open to all identities was important to Koros.
“I think that an important part of being a queer person is being political,” Koros said. “Many of the structures in place within the Jewish community aren’t necessarily political, even if they are queer friendly, and that’s an important aspect for me to feel invested in my identity.”
Koros and Singer were recently honored by Western States Center for creating Maspeak as well as for a project about student perspectives and responses to the attack on Oct. 27, exhibited at the University of Pittsburgh and shown at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and at a Classrooms Without Borders conference.
The not-for-profit which works nationally to strengthen inclusive democracy, is recognizing the work of 11 individuals under 25 who have demonstrated their commitment to building an inclusive community. The two were each awarded $1,027 by the organization, after being nominated by one of their professors.
A Western States Center press release announcing the award read: “Sai and Claire’s work directly confronts white nationalist ideology and promotes inclusive community, as shown in their peaceful protests of right-wing ideologues and dangerous anti-Semitic speech, their commitment to social justice, as well as their organization’s support of families who have lost loved ones to police brutality, including Antwon Rose’s family.”
Now that Koros has graduated and Singer is almost done, the two have begun thinking about the future of Maspeak. Singer noted that student organizations don’t always continue to exist on campus once their creators graduate, but she’s thinking that Maspeak might break that pattern because of the broad interest the group has attracted, with members from Point Park University and Carnegie Mellon University as well as Pitt.
Singer sees building community as vital to the future of the group as they shift into a new phase of the organization that moves well beyond a reaction to Oct. 27.
“This year, we had a lot of events where people got to know one another, build relationships with one another,” Singer said. “We’re working on creating a big intergroup event where we can bring together various groups and organizations and build relationships that way.”
Koros said that those relationships won’t simply be on the Pitt campus, but across the U.S. as well. pjc
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.