Pittsburgh Jewish Justice Activist Reflects On Synagogue Murders
Thursday, November 1, 2018
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.
The nation was really shaken by the massacre of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh attending Shabbat services in their synagogue, The Tree of Life synagogue. A Jewish activist group called Bend The Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice sent out a petition that was signed by at least 18,000 people, telling Trump he was not welcome in Pittsburgh and denouncing his surrounding himself and supporting white nationalism. The petition, in part, read, you and the Republican Party “fully denounce white nationalism, stop targeting and endangering all minorities, cease your assault on immigrants and refugees, and commit yourself to compassionate, democratic policies that recognize the dignity in all of us.”
Trump came anyway. The Shabbat service for the 11 Jews who were killed was one of many held around the country that night. It was called the HIAS National Refugee Shabbat. It was a special Shabbat service in solidarity with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, known as HIAS. It was held to show support and solidarity for immigrants coming to this country and around the globe. Not only does this show the depth of anti-Semitism in our world, fueled by the white nationalist fever gripping Trump’s America, but it speaks deeply to the political divide in the Jewish community as well, and the United States.
Our guest, Eva Resnick-Day, is part of the Squirrel Hill community. She grew up near the synagogue. She’s an activist who works as a community organizer for the Ready For 100, Sierra Club. And Eva Resnick-Day, welcome to The Real News. It’s great to have you with us.
EVA RESNICK-DAY: Thank you so much for having me.
MARC STEINER: I’d like to start with just exploring where you were that day. What happened to you, how you found out, where you were at that moment as a young Jewish woman, as an activist, as a member of that community.
EVA RESNICK-DAY: It was horrifying. I found out the news when I was waking up, and I have a group chat of my friends, and there was just an article, it said “be safe friends.” And I think we’re in this world of fear right now, where shootings are happening often, where terror is happening often around the country. So, my heart didn’t immediately drop. I clicked the articles, like okay, what’s happening this time? And then, I saw that the shooter not only had killed individuals that were already dead, but was in Tree of Life Synagogue, which is blocks from where I grew up.
And also, I knew that my partner was across the street house-sitting for his parents that morning. So, I just was overtaken by sheer terror that my partner was there and the community that I knew, people at Tree of Life and the congregations that are within. And I was just met with shock and started calling everyone that I know immediately, just making sure that they were okay. So, that was the moment for me.
MARC STEINER: Did you know some of the people who were murdered in that synagogue, or knew of them?
EVA RESNICK-DAY: I definitely knew of them. I went to Emma Kaufmann Jewish Camp, and a few of the folks were really key members in our Jewish community here in Pittsburgh. I’ve had dear friends, loose cousins, I’ve had folks that I volunteer with lose many friends. It’s a small community. And my first thought was there is no way that there is a list of 11 Jews in Squirrel Hill and I don’t know any of them, because it’s a close-knit community. So, the terror that fell over everyone who grew up there was just so immense. And we waited. We didn’t get the names of people that had died for over a day. So, that was a really intense fear.
MARC STEINER: So, one of the things that has come in the wake of this was the petition I mentioned at the top of the program, where Trump was asked not to come. Of course, he came anyway. And that, to me, was really kind of very telling when there’s a wave of white nationalism that is gripping our country. Let me just play this quick clip for all of us to watch just for a minute. This is Trump’s early response to it, in terms of what he thinks should happen.
DONALD TRUMP: I think one thing we should is we should stiffen up our laws in terms of the death penalty. When people do this, they should get the death penalty, and they shouldn’t have to wait years and years. Now, the lawyers will get involved, and everybody is going to get involved, and we’ll be 10 years down the line. Anybody that does a thing like this to innocent people that are in temple or in church – we had so many incidents with churches – they should be – they should really suffer the ultimate price. They should pay the ultimate price. I’ve felt that way for a long time.
… this is a case where if they had an armed guard inside, they might have been able to stop him immediately. So this would be a case for, if there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him. Maybe there would have been nobody killed, except for him, frankly.
MARC STEINER: So, that’s just a piece of what Trump had to say. I’m curious, your thoughts on his presence in Pittsburgh, what he had to say and the petition to stop him from coming.
EVA RESNICK-DAY: So, first of all, it’s just really hard to listen to and I’ve been trying to avoid that.
MARC STEINER: I understand, I understand.
EVA RESNICK-DAY: There’s a few things there. One, for folks that aren’t from Pittsburgh, you’ll know that the police station, the fire station is literally seconds away from Tree of Life Temple. And they were on the scene in seconds. And also, we know that the armed policemen were shot and injured. That wasn’t what was going to bring safety to our community. What would bring safety to our community is us supporting each other and loving each other and strength and being accepting.
It also doubly hurts to hear him talk about the death penalty, because something that’s sits hard for me in this moment is that the shooter did walk away alive and was able to surrender when Antwon Rose, a 16 year old boy who wasn’t even proven that he was a part of any kind of crime, was shot three times in the back and murdered, and how we hold those two things in the city and how our police respond to different sets of people is really hard. And that doesn’t mean the shooter deserves the death penalty, it means that everyone in our communities deserve the same right to life, the same right to move through our justice system, if we do have a justice system here in our city and here across the country.
MARC STEINER: What you just said right now is really powerful. Let me stop for just a moment so that I can explore this a little bit more in depth with you before we come back to the shooting in the synagogue and the responses of people. I mean, the contradictions that exist. When something like this happens, you do begin to think that at the same time this happened, that a Black couple in Kentucky was murdered by another racist madman, this racist nationless coming in saying that white people don’t kill white people and shot this elderly Black couple because he could not get a church, a Black church. And our reactions are different.
So, as an activist, you’re part of IfNotNow, which you can describe to our viewers, which is a Jewish activist organization. I mean, that contradiction sets things up. So, talk a bit about that and what you felt and saw and what that does in terms of your analysis and looking at this particular horrendous event.
EVA RESNICK-DAY: Yeah. It shows the lack of solidarity in our communities that needs to exist. It shows an extra level of racism because, yes, we were targeted because we are Jews. It was an anti-Semitic act, but we were also targeted because we are welcoming and supporting of refugees. We were supporting folks who weren’t white. And how the United States, but also our Jewish community and our Pittsburgh community, reacts to the trauma of our Black communities versus the Jewish community, which is largely white, is just so stark. And it really shows how we value life in our country and I think it’s a call to all of us. It’s a call to our Jewish community, it’s a call to our white friends to be in solidarity not just with the Jews right now who are suffering and mourning in my community, but with Trans lives that are being murdered every day and our country is trying to erase their existence.
It’s about standing with the folks in Kentucky, where they tried to have the same act for a Black church and it was a white nationalist act like it was here in Pittsburgh. We need to stand up and stand with our Muslim brothers. We need to stand up and stand with our LGBTQI community and we have to be there for everyone. And I think that’s a really important call and I think one that we’re hearing at a lot of these gatherings here in Pittsburgh, that it’s incredible, the amount of support that is pouring out from across our city from our elected officials, from the Muslim community that 70,000 dollars for us in under 24 hours. But we have to show up in the same way for our other communities here in Pittsburgh, and we all need to be rallying in the same way every time someone is injured. Because an injury to one is an injury to all.
MARC STEINER: Well, that’s very powerfully said. Let me play this clip of one of the members of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh talking about Trump. I’m going to explore this in terms of where you see the roots of this in our country and what happened in Pittsburgh.
LYNETTE LEDERMAN: I do not welcome this president to my city.
JOHN BERMAN: Why not?
LYNETTE LEDERMAN: Because he’s the purveyor of hate speech. The hypocritical words that come from him tell me nothing.
MARC STEINER: So in many ways, Eva, the heart of the matter here really goes back to what is motivating these kinds of racist and anti-Semitic acts that are taking place across the country. And the root of this, which is why so many people signed the petition to say to Trump, please don’t come to Pittsburgh. I mean, something’s being unleashed in our country, and that’s one of the first things – I saw these 11 people killed and murdered there like the people who were murdered in Charleston in the church and the rest. Talk a bit about your work, I mean how this fits into the work you do as an activist and what your thoughts are about that.
EVA RESNICK-DAY: Yeah, well what hate speech is, is it’s sparking the othering of people in our country and saying immigrants are ruining our country, it’s saying refugees are not welcome here, they’re ruining our country. It’s the speech that these folks who are community members are not one of us. And that’s what we’re being told on a national scale and it’s a breeding this ground where a small number of us in the U.S. feel like it’s okay to hate, it’s okay to openly hate, it’s okay to believe that members of our communities are destroying our communities. And it’s allowing space for hate to grow and fester and come to life in an extremely deadly, murderous way.
So, I work with the Sierra Club, so the work I usually do is around a renewable energy future, which feels so far from what I’m thinking about right now. But even in that process, we’re unpacking the environmental racism and injustice that has existed in our communities and how do we really build a system where everyone’s is involved. And that just requires people talking to each other that don’t usually and hearing each other and listening to the issues that we’re facing as working class people and in responding. And that’s not happening in our country right now, we’re just pulling each other further and further apart.
So, when Trump said he wanted to visit Pittsburgh in days later, after rallies that he was having because it wasn’t even that important to him, it was like a punch in the gut to a lot of our community. I know that I have a friend that said, “I think my friend might not have lost her husband if the election hadn’t gone the way that it did.” And that feeling that that could be true – we don’t know, but that could be true – and that the person that sparked this hate was going to be in our temple, in our community, was just such a gut-wrenching punch, especially after the mourning family said, “We don’t want you here, we don’t need you here right now, we’re trying to have funerals.”
Especially after our mayor said, “We need time mourn, come later, we’re having funerals. And also, our first responders are tired and overworked and we don’t have the capacity to have a president in our city right now.” And it was just completely disregarded. And it was just such an extra slap in the face and punch in the gut to our communities that were already mourning. We then had to put extra, additional emotional energy into protesting, into not letting this fascism, this white nationalism enter our community because the values that we were targeted for were openness and inclusion and welcoming. And we have to continue to carry that out if we are going to continue to be a strong community.
MARC STEINER: So, just before we wrap up here, Eva, I thought one of the most significant things I heard, one of the many significant things I heard that came out of this horrendous moment, was the doctor who tended to the man who killed 11 people in that congregation. The doctor was a member of that congregation, he was Jewish. I think we have a short clip here, but I want to talk a bit about what he said because it says a lot about one way to look at being Jewish and what that means. Let’s listen to this for a moment.
JON SNOW: You were sort of at the head of a team that saved his life.
JEFF COHEN: That may a bit of an overstatement, but yes. He was severely injured and got great care here. Many of the people that tended to him were Jewish and they’re heroes.
JON SNOW: And as a doctor, but also a parishioner of the synagogue, and you looked into his eyes, what did you see?
JEFF COHEN: I just looked at him and he’s like a lot of people that come in here. They’re scared, they’re confused, they don’t quite understand it. Once again, my job isn’t to judge him. Other people … that’s a pretty awesome responsibility. My job is to take care of him.
MARC STEINER: He also said, in another interview, this was one of the most significantly Jewish acts he ever did. And that, to me, this was also profound in terms of the Jewish community, and I’m Jewish as well, about when you go kind of into the depths of what it means to be Jewish and what that humanity means.
EVA RESNICK-DAY: Yeah, it’s a core value that’s stuck with me for my life. It’s that, as Jews, it is our responsibility to treat everyone as our neighbor, to take care of everyone in every community. And I think that the history that we’ve gone through as a Jewish community calls that we must. We must take care of everyone because we need everyone to be able to take care of us when we’re being persecuted. And yeah, it’s beautiful. And again, it’s just so hard to see that this shooter is being treated with the utmost care and respect from those whom he is oppressing. And I think that’s beautiful, but just thinking about how Antwon Rose was treated in our community even after his death is just – it’s really, really hard to hold both of those things at the same time.
MARC STEINER: I mean, it’s so huge to think about what’s being unleashed in terms of white supremacy, what’s being unleashed in terms of the hatred in America and who it’s directed at. All the words we use about the global rulers and how the anti-Semitic words are being used without using those words, the kind of racist words that are being used without being blatant and what that’s unleashing among us.
EVA RESNICK-DAY: Yeah. So, there wasn’t a gathering that I was at, including the vigil on the night that this happened, where I didn’t hear a chant of “vote, vote, vote, vote,” mostly from the young people, led by the young people in our communities. And that’s a part of it. We need to change the political structures that are purveying this hate. And beyond voting, we need to be canvassing and we need to be phone banking. And while we’re canvassing, we need to be having real conversations that are asking people questions about their life and what they’re facing, and not just saying, “Here’s the candidate you need to vote for,” and running away. And I think that’s part of it.
I also think just we have to start listening to one another and we have to begin to show up for all communities and all people who are being oppressed and feeling this hatred in this moment. We have to come together stronger and break down the barriers between our communities and have real conversations. And it’s hard and it’s going to be difficult and there’s just a lot of hate that’s been festering for a long time and that’s not going to go away overnight.
And what I hope comes from this tragedy is that it brings our communities closer together here in Pittsburgh. I know that I feel pulled to double down on my religion and my Judaism in a way that I was stirring to begin in the last year but haven’t really dug into. But I also hope it’s a call for our Jewish brothers and sisters to stand with the others that are being oppressed and being othered than this moment as well. And that’s not just in Pittsburgh, but I would love to see that across the country as a call for us all to stand together.
MARC STEINER: Well, Eva Resnick-Day, thank you so much for being with us. I appreciate you taking the time, I’m sorry for what you’re going through. I appreciate your activism and who you are. Thank you very much.
EVA RESNICK-DAY: Thank you so much and thank you for having this interview. I appreciate it.
MARC STEINER: I do too. Thank you very much.
And I’m Marc Steiner, here for The Real News Network. We’ll be talking together soon, take care.