The Pittsburgh Jewish community had its first opportunity to hear excerpts from “Meanings of Oct. 27,” an oral history of the shooting at the Tree of Life building, during a webinar on Tuesday, June 23.
The project’s creators, Aliza Becker and Noah Schoen, offered selections from the oral history as part of an interactive program on Zoom, “After the Synagogue Shooting: Pittsburghers Reflect on Antisemitism and Racism,” presented by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
In the course of their initial interviews for the oral history, Becker and Schoen “learned of another tragedy that happened several months prior, in June 2018,” according to Becker. “A black teenager named Antwon Rose had been killed by a policeman.”
Through the city’s different response to each of these two tragic events, Becker said she and Schoen realized “the story of Oct. 27, 2018 was also a story of racism. When we spoke to people of color, they talked about their experience of racism in Pittsburgh as they reflected on the synagogue shooting.”
The purpose of the webinar, Becker offered, was to “explore how Jewish and non-Jewish Pittsburghers” have been grappling with both anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism and to think about how prejudices impacted the lives of those attending the seminar.
Webinar participants were invited to reflect on questions posed by Becker and Schoen as well as the comments of various speakers who had been interviewed for the oral history. After each set of questions, the webinar paused, giving time for participants to gather their thoughts and respond in an online chat box.
The excerpts presented concerned Jewish identity, anti-Semitism and racism. Quotes used came from a variety of familiar Pittsburgh voices including Keshra haLev Fife, executive director of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute; Leslie Aizenman, director of refugee and immigrant services at Jewish Family and Community Services; hip hop artist and co-founder of 1Hood Media, Jasiri X; and Cheryl Moore, clinic manager of the University of Pittsburgh’s student health service.
“Oral history presents a tool of deep listening,” Schoen explained. “It was clear to us that after the synagogue shooting, non-Jews reached out to the Jewish community and responded to their needs.” He said some members of the Black community commented that “Pittsburgh doesn’t respond to our needs this way.” The question he asked was: “Why is this happening?”
While Becker and Schoen have begun to present excerpts from their oral history, they are still interviewing those interested in contributing to the project. To date, 74 people have been interviewed with another 25 people offering to participate, but COVID-19 has made it difficult to do in-person interviews.
Once complete, “The Meanings of Oct. 27” oral history will reside at the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives at the Heinz History Center.
Based on the reaction of the attendees’ responses in the chat window, Rauh director Eric Lidji said that the webinar proved “even people who have no connection to Pittsburgh” have deep feelings about the way October 27 influenced “their Jewishness, their views on anti-Semitism and their understanding of the relationship between the Jewish community and other communities.”
Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh Director Lauren Bairnsfather has served as an advisor to the oral history project. She praised Becker and Schoen for capturing “diverse responses to the attack on the Tree of Life building.”
“As head of the Holocaust Center, I struggled and still struggle to think of ways to pay back minority communities in Pittsburgh – including minorities within the Jewish community – that still face exclusion and daily threats of violence. The interviews in the ‘Meanings’ archive can provide action items for bringing equity and justice for all to our wonderful city.”
Bairnsfather expressed surprise by “the candor with which participants shared their reactions in the chat during the program.” The “differing responses will help the Holocaust Center develop curriculum to use the ‘Meanings’ archive as a resource for teachers, students, and the greater community,” she said.
While the program originally was intended to be a live event, the pandemic forced Becker and Schoen to take it online.
“Any format that gets people talking to one another is one worth exploring,” said Schoen.
Ultimately, he is anxious “to have these interviews in the hands of people in the Pittsburgh community, who are doing community work on these issues.”
When that happens, the Squirrel Hill native ventured, “these interviews can be a tool for them to hold communal conversations, not just among a bunch of people who descend on a Zoom webinar, but people who are already in community with each other, who are neighbors, who are friends, who are wrestling with these issues.”
“After the Synagogue Shooting: Pittsburghers Reflect on Antisemitism and Racism” is available to view on YouTube.
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.