My Mission Is to Fight ‘H-Speech,’ Says Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, as Community Deals With Aftermath of Massacre
Nearly three months after the slaughter of eleven Jews by a neo-Nazi gunman at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers has found himself with a new mission: the eradication of xenophobic, bigoted and hateful speech, or “h-speech,” as he calls it.
It was Rabbi Myers who dialed 911 from his office on that terrible Shabbat morning of Oct. 27 last year, when gunman Robert Bowers, reportedly shouting “all Jews must die,” embarked on a murder spree that ended over an hour later with his capture by police officers. Myers also assisted four of his congregants as they escaped through a side-door to safety. In the days that followed, the rabbi became the face of the Jewish community’s response to the atrocity, giving serial interviews to the media and hosting President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump on their visit to the city three days later. In the process, the New Jersey-native emerged as “a voice of Pittsburgh,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Peter Smith. “Gracious, consoling, heartbroken and resolute.”
When The Algemeiner spoke with Rabbi Myers on Thursday this week, that resoluteness was still very much in evidence.
“I’ve chosen to lend my voice to the eradication of hate speech, and I’ll say that only once to you, because I took a pledge that I will call it the ‘h-word,'” Myers said.
“There is much we can do to eliminate ‘h speech,’ and we’re not doing enough,” he explained. “First is the simplest piece; by not using the word, we then have to be thoughtful in all that we say. If we’re thoughtful in all that we say, perhaps that can make us more thoughtful in all that we do.”
Myers argued that there was “a natural progression just by thinking about our words.” In that respect, he continued, “I think there needs to be more education. In public schools, children need to learn more about the religions of the world, to experience what’s beautiful about all these different religions, to meet peers from different religions, to meet other religious leaders, because with understanding comes more compassion, more feeling and less ‘h speech.'”
On the specific question of where education against antisemitism should feature, Myers takes an unabashedly universalist approach. “I think antisemitism has always been here, I don’t expect it go away, I don’t expect it to ever disappear, but I’m not trying to say this is merely about antisemitism,” he said. “I think there’s a broader picture of ‘h speech’ in general that needs to be approached. We can be doing that in partnership with other faith communities, building bridges to them, because they are experiencing the same thing as well.”
Myers highlighted that in his view, “the Muslim community is experiencing the same thing as well, and yet the beautiful gestures, particularly from the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, how they’ve reached out to us, have really touched us.”
Said Myers: “We’re finding people who are feeling uncomfortable in the United States because they are treated as the ‘other.’ Yet we are a country of immigrants, so that goes totally against what our country was built upon, which was an immigrant society. I think that there is so much more that can have us work together, rather than single out antisemitism for unique and special attention.”
The massacre in Pittsburgh was the worst antisemitic atrocity in the history of the United States, and the only time a mass shooting took place in a synagogue. Yet Myers acknowledged that one major difference between the US and Europe — where Islamist gunmen have opened fire on Jewish targets in France, Belgium and Denmark over the last decade — is that in the US, there is no discussion about the Jewish community being uprooted.
“I believe there is a golden age of Jewish experience that’s being taking place in the US for quite some time now, where the Jewish community has found acceptance in so many quarters,” he said. “It’s been hard-earned, it’s taken a very long time to reach that stage in the US, but it indeed exists.”
In the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh where he lives, and where the Tree of Life Synagogue is located, “no-one has any thought of leaving,” Rabbi Myers said. “They don’t see this as symptomatic of a greater illness in the Squirrel Hill area, they see this as one unique event, but they’re not going to have that unique event define their Judaism.”
Unsurprisingly, the community remains enveloped in grief, at the same time that it is heartened by the overwhelming support received from the outside. “Even though we are a united community, each individual has responded in different ways and is therefore coping in different ways,” Myers explained. “People are all in different stages of mourning.”
He himself is “doing rather well,” he said. “There will be moments here and there where, like any other mourner, there will be difficult periods and there will be joyful periods.” For the families of the 11 victims, with whom Myers is in regular contact, the situation is “far more difficult, because there are greater questions weighing that there are no answers to.”
Remarked Myers: “They keep asking questions, like ‘why?’, that just cannot be answered.”
When the name of neo-Nazi shooter Robert Bowers, who is awaiting trial on 44 charges of federal crimes, came up for the first time in our conversation, Myers responded, “Until you mentioned his name, I had forgotten what it was.”
Myers said that he hadn’t spoken the shooter’s name, “because I think that by using someone’s name, they gain an infamy that they don’t deserve, so I don’t refer to the perpetrator by name. The name is less relevant than the evil and the ‘h-speech’ he represents. They are not just his personal property. There are many out there who feel the same way he does.”