Student Response to Tree of Life attack has been varied and impactful

By October 25, 2019 No Comments

Kathryn Fleisher

By Justin Vellucci
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer

Kathryn Fleisher’s passionate opposition to gun violence didn’t start with the Squirrel Hill synagogue shooting on Oct. 27, 2018; that only heightened it.

“After the shooting, I couldn’t find myself, I couldn’t go to class, I couldn’t shower,” says Fleischer, 21, a University of Pittsburgh junior who lives in Squirrel Hill but hails from Cleveland. “Eleven people were dead down the street and I realized I had to do something. I started organizing events because it was the only thing that made me feel human again.”

Fleisher started a gun violence prevention group, Not My Generation, in February. But her reaction was merely one of myriad ways Pittsburgh students have responded during the past year to the shooting. 

Following the shooting, the University of Pittsburgh launched a one-credit pop-up course, a series of 10 one-hour lectures taken place during most people’s lunch breaks, titled “Antisemitism Then and Now: Perspectives After Tree of Life.” Interest in studying antisemitism, white nationalism and religious persecution spiked. One class, which typically hosted 35 students, was taught to 60.

“There was so much demand,” says Irina Livezeanu, Pitt’s director of Jewish studies. “We could have gone up to 80 people but we couldn’t find the room.”

The main campus of Chatham University sits across Wilkins Avenue in Squirrel Hill from the synagogue where the shooting occurred. On the first Monday after the shooting, counselors descended on campus and professors adapted curriculum accordingly. In “SDE101: Strategies for Success In College,” a seminar mandatory for all first-year Chatham students, open discussion sessions took the place of instruction.

“I intentionally adjusted my schedule [to attend SDE101],” says Dr. Randi Congleton, the school’s assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion. “I really wanted to think about the ways we are connected and how you engage so people are heard. We said, ‘Let’s make space and hold space for students who need to reflect.’”

College students were hardly the only ones impacted.

At 8:17 a.m. on the Monday morning following the shooting, Community Day School history teacher Jackie Goldblum stood in a third-floor classroom in front of 28 eighth-graders and says she was scared. Before the shooting, the eighth-graders had been studying a “pyramid of hate” model that touched on themes of genocide from Nazi Germany to Rwanda. After some initial hesitation, conversations and student-led teachings on antisemitism in modern America flowed naturally.

“Nothing’s going to stop these kids from coming to us,” says Goldblum, who came to CDS in 1999. “It was part of our job as a family [to discuss the shooting] and I think other teachers felt the same way. As we talked with our kids at home, we also had to face our kids at school.”

Officials at Taylor Allderdice High School, which sits down Shady Avenue from the synagogue, were criticized by some last year for not doing enough.

“They shut down any conversation in the classes about it,” says the parent of a senior at the Pittsburgh high school. “The students were expected to go back to classes on Monday as if it were like any other Monday in October.”

School officials last week continued to defend their actions.

“For any student who wanted to talk, we had outlets. We had teachers available, as well,” says James McCoy, the school’s principal. “We also didn’t want to face students who wanted to return to normalcy with talking about. We had to keep everyone’s needs in perspective.”

“There’s not really a blanket approach that works for every individual,” adds Taylor Allderdice social worker Debra Genter.

In the past year, as some continued to mourn, others sought action. Abigail Natelson grew up in Mt. Lebanon attending services at Beth El Congregation. She started working this year in Atlanta as a fellow for Repair The World, an organization based, in part, on improving society through Jewish values.

“I definitely think about it every day,” says Natelson, 22. “Maybe subconsciously that really pushed me to apply for the fellowship.”

And then there’s Fleisher, who, as a Reform Jew, got involved in the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NIFTY) when she was 15. On Nov. 8, she’ll truck 125 youth activists from around the nation to Washington, D.C. to promote ways to curb gun violence.

“From a young age, pursuing social justice has been a big part of my Jewish identity,” Fleisher said. “[The synagogue shooting] is the closest I’ve ever been to gun violence. It’s all happening here.”

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