Overcoming Hate: A Circle on the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre

Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility

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Students share their thoughts and feelings in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, view and discuss a video about hate crimes, and hear the voices of religious and community leaders who are standing up against hate. 

To the Teacher
Circles are a powerful way for people to come together, share their thoughts and feelings, be heard, bear witness, mourn, and heal together. Below are suggestions for a restorative circle to help students share their thoughts and feelings following the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2018.  For guidelines on conducting circles, see our introduction to the process here.  See additional resources available from TeachableMoment and others at the bottom of this lesson. 

Background on the Massacre
A man armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and at least three handguns shouted anti-Semitic slurs as he opened fire inside a synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, on Saturday morning, October 27, 2018. He shot indiscriminately into the crowd of worshipers, killing 11 congregants and wounding six people, including four police officers. The attack at the Tree of Life Congregation was among the deadliest against the Jewish community in the United States

Federal prosecutors have charged Robert Bowers with 29 counts in the deaths of 11 people.  Scott Brady, the chief federal prosecutor in western Pennsylvania, described the massacre as a "terrible and unspeakable act of hate." Officials in Pittsburgh reported that the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in was being investigated as a hate crime.

According to the Anti-Defamation League's 2017 audit, incidents of anti-Semitism* rose 57 percent between 2016 and 2017, the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number since they began tracking hate crime data in 1979.  Mass shootings have become a recurring part of American life, including at places of religious worship, bringing violence to spaces that are intended to provide peace and healing.

* Anti-Semitism: According to Merriam Webster, anti-Semitism is "hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group."


Moment of Silence

Ask for a few minutes of silence for the 11 people killed, and 6 injured, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, on Saturday morning, October 27.


Go Round on Feelings

Send the talking piece around, inviting students to share a thought or feeling in response to the shooting. Realize that some students may not want to share, which is fine.  Remember that the talking piece in a restorative circle serves as an invitation to share (or pass), while everyone else in the circle listens.  When the talking piece comes back to you, the keeper, acknowledge the feelings in the room.  It’s normal for people to experience a range of (strong) emotions in response to a horrific attack such as this one.

If necessary or relevant, send the talking piece around a second or third time, asking students to build on the first go-round with any reflections, connections, or additions.  Recognize students sharing as well as students being present, paying attention, and bearing witness. Both are essential to meaningful circle practice.

Realize that this may be all your students need in this moment – to come together as a community to share their thoughts and feelings, and experience each other’s presence.

In some cases, students may be ready to continue the circle by looking at what happened and what the response has been.  In that case, consider continuing your circle in the following way.


More Circle Sharing

Send the talking piece around, asking students what they know about what happened at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh this weekend. Invite each student to share one piece of information, thus building the story of the events together as a group. When the talking piece comes back to you, summarize what was shared, correct any misinformation, and add information that you think is useful to know in the context of what happened.

Alternatively, suspend the talking piece for this part of the lesson and invite the students to share what they know about what happened this weekend to collaboratively build the story of this weekend’s events in a popcorn style approach. Again, correct any misinformation, and add information that you think is useful to know in the context of what happened.
 

Consider sending the talking piece around again, asking one or both of the following questions:

  • How do you think Jewish families in the U.S. feel about what happened? 
  • How do you think the people in Pittsburgh feel about what happened? 
  • How do you think this tragedy affects the U.S. as a whole?
  • If it hasn’t come up yet, ask students what they know about how people in Pittsburgh and beyond have responded to the massacre in the days following the murders.  What are their thoughts about this?

Video: Anti-Semitic Attacks on the Rise

Show the following MSNBC video Anti-Semitic Attacks on the Rise in the United States:  https://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/video/anti-semitic-attacks-on-the-rise-in-the-united-states-report-says-1354904643885?v=raila&

Send a talking piece around inviting students to reflect on the video:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about this video?
  • What does the video say about anti-Semitic attacks?
  • What does the video say about white supremacists*? 
  • What does the video say about the role the nation’s leaders should play?  How do you feel about that?

*White supremacist: According to Merriam Webster, a white supremacist is "a person who believes that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races."


Community and Faith Leaders Speak Out in Solidarity

Distribute this handout (also presented below) with quotes from community and faith leaders in response to the tragedy in Pittsburgh.  Invite different volunteers to read the quotes out loud:
 

“Our hearts break for everybody who is suffering through the unimaginable trauma and grief in Pittsburgh right now,” said Sikh Coalition Executive Director Satjeet Kaur. “As we know, no community should ever feel unsafe in their house of worship, and Sikhs nationwide stand in solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters as we grieve together.” 

Bishop David Zubik of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh told reporters "there is no explanation" for the hate and violence involved. "It's something that's getting worse, and we certainly have to look for ways to say, 'never again,'" he said. "We keep on saying that, and things continue to get worse."

"This barbaric attack on our neighbors, with whom we share our city and have visited and dialogued multiple times, is deeply disturbing and horrifying," CAIR-Pittsburgh Chapter President Safdar Khwaja said.  "Such an act of terror affects all of us. We offer our full support and assistance in the aftermath of this tragedy, and our doors are open at all times to our neighbors."  CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is a Muslim civil rights organization.

The President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, sent this message: "To our brothers and sisters of the Jewish community, we stand with you. We condemn all acts of violence and hate and yet again, call on our nation and public officials to confront the plague of gun violence. Violence as a response to political, racial, or religious differences must be confronted with all possible effort. God asks nothing less of us. He begs us back to our common humanity as His sons and daughters.”

Shaykh Waleed Basyouni, imam and director of Clear Lake Islamic Center in Houston released the following statement: "The senseless act of violence … is mourned by all people of conscience including ourselves. We condemn such violence and pray that incidents like this may cease. Too many innocent lives have been taken and too many tears have been shed. "Hate crimes are steadily on the rise, particularly against the American Jewish community….  "One remedy to this violence is to love and care for our neighbors. We stand with you in friendship and peace and offer our assistance in whatever way your community needs. Our hearts are broken over your loss."

Faith leaders from both the Christian and Jewish communities met for a unity service in Detroit the day after the attack in Pittsburgh. “We want Detroit to know, we want America to know, that African Americans around this country, who have been victims of hate crimes, stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters,” said Pastor Kenneth James Flowers. 

Mark Jacobs of the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, said: “Our hearts are broken beyond words…  I know many members of my community believe that what happened yesterday was an attack on America. It’s not just the Jewish community.”

Pastor Brandon Capuano of Rochester, NY, said: "My heart breaks for the Jewish community and really, there's no reason any man, woman, or child should feel threatened in their house of worship… Our response ought to be the same thing that it would be if it happened to Christians, if it happened to Jews, if it happened to Muslims, of any faith that it happens to, our response ought to be the same: What do you need? How can we serve you? How can we love you? How we can stand beside you?"

Ask students to reflect on some of the things these community and faith leaders are sharing in this moment of grief.   Ask:

  • What resonates with you about what they say?  Why?
  • What are these faith leaders calling for?  What are your thoughts about that?

Closing

Send the talking piece around the circle, asking one of the following:

  • What is one feeling or thought you would like to share about this tragedy?
  • What is one thing you or we at this school could do to counter hate and make our community more caring?

Additional Resources and Activities

TeachableMoment guidelines on dealing with difficult issues:

Also see resources from others on the Pittsburgh massacre:

In addition, the New York Times has created a forum for students responding to this article: Is Fear of ‘The Other’ Poisoning Public Life?

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