Meanings of October 27th is an oral history project that explores Pittsburghers’ experiences of and reflections on the October 27th, 2018 synagogue shooting that took eleven lives. It is directed by Aliza Becker, a Bard College Associate Fellow and the founder of the American Jewish Peace Archive, a five-year national oral history project. Noah Schoen, a community organizer born and raised in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, coordinates local outreach.
Political Research Associates interviewed Becker and Schoen upon the anniversary of the Tree of Life attack to learn more about the project.
How did Meanings of October 27th come about? What are you hoping listeners will learn from these stories?
We are believers in the oral history interview, which gives narrators the power to guide the conversation and speak their own truth. As interviewers, we ask open-ended questions and listen until the narrator is finished speaking. The lives of Pittsburghers did not begin on October 27th, and oral history is a great medium to give them space to reflect on the synagogue shooting within the fullness of their lives.
The project’s narrators [interviewees], who reflect the full diversity of the Pittsburgh Jewish community as well as a group of non-Jewish Pittsburghers, are invited to place these reflections into the context of their wider life stories. In oral history, the truth is a multi-vocal art; our collection of individual narratives from Pittsburgh paints a more nuanced picture of the community’s experience than any one story.
The goals of Meanings of October 27th are to develop an archival-quality oral history collection of audio- recorded interviews and to make that collection available to the public to support community healing and bridge-building.
One of our hopes is to start a conversation about the effects of antisemitism on the lives of Jews and their communities. For example, Pittsburgh’s Jews have begun a vigorous conversation about community safety since October 27th. In the audio introduction to the project you from hear Ira Frank, a lay leader at two local synagogues. He acknowledges the tension between increased synagogue security and wanting to be welcoming, particularly because “all Jews aren’t white, Caucasian, yarmulke-wearing individuals.” Listening to parts of his interview could jumpstart a community conversation about antisemitism and racism and encourage Jews to share their fears and concerns about safety. Non-Jews seeking to be effective allies against antisemitism benefit from hearing and understanding these oft-unspoken thoughts of Jews.
How much did you consider the threat of antisemitism before last year?
Both of us have been thinking about the impact of antisemitism on Jews for some time, but Donald Trump’s antisemitism during his 2016 campaign and the media’s inability to decisively acknowledge it heightened the urgency of the issue. His closing ad, filled with coded antisemitic language and an explicitly white supremacist hand signal, brought so blatantly to the surface the antisemitic stereotypes that had lurked throughout his campaign. Watching the public debate whether this was antisemitism as we watched his antisemitic platform flourish was alarming.
Though we weren’t working together at the time, both of us noticed Jews having conversations with each other about Trump’s blatant antisemitism quietly and amongst ourselves. We believe the conversation about antisemitism needs to be a more public one so Jews can be less alone in the fight against it.
What have you learned about how the Tree of Life massacre affected the local community that those of us outside may not realize?
Every Pittsburgher is on their own healing path since October 27th, and though the community’s resilience and strength have been remarkable, people are still hurting. Our interviews have opened up space for narrators to express the combination of the strength and togetherness of the community that has carried people forward and the grief that remains.
Pittsburghers have now been forced to grapple with this antisemitic violence, but they are adamant that it does not define who they are. Oral history interviews allow locals to shape and define their own story, with October 27th as one part of larger individual and communal narratives.
PRA’s new report “Taking Aim At Multiracial Democracy: Antisemitism, White Nationalism, and Anti-immigrant Racism in the Era of Trump,” examines the intertwining of antisemitism and anti-immigrant racism fueling the White nationalist movement and violent attacks like those in El Paso and Pittsburgh. Do you see a sense of solidarity building among Jews, immigrants and all marginalized groups, animated by an inclusive vision of a world where everyone can thrive?
Jewish Pittsburghers developed close relationships with Pittsburgh’s diverse non-Jews long before the synagogue shooting. The substance of those relationships showed in the strength of the post-shooting outreach to the Jewish community and the deepening of those relationships since October 27th. We have heard Muslim community leaders saying, “You were with us when there was rising Islamophobia after 9/11, so we knew we had to have your back now.” Monica Ruiz, the director of Casa San Jose, a local Latino immigrant justice center, talks in her interview about bringing her family, staff, and constituents to vigils to support her Jewish friends who she got to know through their volunteer support of CSJ. A few years ago the Pittsburgh Jewish Community Center started a new program called the Center for Lovingkindness whose motto is to transform ‘neighbor’ from geographic term to moral concept. They have been facilitating multiracial, multifaith conversations and encouraging the Jewish community to increase its sensitivity to violence and trauma in other communities. The lesson is clear: solidarity is about building shared lives as neighbors who look out for each other all the time, not just in moments of crisis.
What has been most surprising to you in this project so far?
Jewish Pittsburgh has a unique history. While in the United States most urban Jews moved en masse to the suburbs in the 1960s and 70s, a majority of Pittsburgh’s Jews stayed in the city neighborhoods where their parents and grandparents had grown up. This proximity has enabled Pittsburgh’s Jews to maintain stronger relationships with non-Jews over the years. Jews have played significant roles in city leadership, like Pittsburgh’s first female mayor Sophie Masloff, who was elected in 1988 as a Jewish grandmother who would care for everyone.
The neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, where the Tree of Life synagogue is located, is a town square for Jews of all denominations. An Orthodox Squirrel Hill resident commented that she could not see herself living in Israel because it would leave her missing the religious pluralism of the Jewish community she enjoys in Pittsburgh. A sense of varied yet united peoplehood animates the community. Whether they are longtime residents or relative newcomers, Jewish Pittsburghers have a deep attachment to their community, to their history, and to each other.