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  • Writer's pictureDr. Abdesalam Soudi

Pitt comes together to honor Tree of Life victims and stress love over hate

Updated: Sep 29, 2019

Tony Novosel, senior lecturer, Department of History; Abdesalam Soudi, lecturer in Linguistics; social activist Mercedes Zandwijken and Machiel Keestra, visiting fellow at the Pitt Center for Philosophy of Science.


The resounding message at a rally Nov. 5 to honor those killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill was that only love can eradicate hate, and that Pittsburgh was leading the way in practicing this message.

“The symbol — it’s the shield of David,” Schiff said. “Take your T-shirt home. Hang it on your wall. Look at that shield and resolve that in the weeks and months and years ahead, you will respond to this evil by being a shield. A shield against antisemitism, a shield to protect the vulnerable, a shield around the downtrodden, a shield for those that need you.”

Many in the crowd were directly connected to the tragedy.

Seymour Drescher, professor emeritus in the Department of History, had just pulled into the parking lot at Tree of Life for a weekly Torah Study service for Dor Hadash congregation on Saturday morning, Oct. 27, when someone came out of the building and told him to stay in his car. Confused, he thought the request was odd, but then the next minute two more people ran out yelling that there had been shots fired inside and everyone needed to get out.

What Drescher found amazing was that by the time he got out of the parking lot, there were already first responders swarming toward the building. Later, he would learn that fellow Dor Hadash congregants Jerry Rabinowitz had been killed in the attack and Daniel Leger severely injured.

Accompanying Drescher at the Nov. 5 rally was Eve Wider, director of the Millstein Library at Pitt–Greensburg. Wider also belongs to Dor Hadash and is a resident of Squirrel Hill.

Michael Neft, who belongs to the New Light Congregation that meets at Tree of Life Synagogue, was accompanied to the vigil by fellow School of Nursing professors.

“I thought the tribute was well done and very fitting,” Neft said. “It addressed the pertinent issues, serving to remind us to maintain a sense of community no matter what our individual religion, race, sexual orientation, etc., might be, and that hate has no place in any community of humans.

Speakers at the event included students, staff, faculty and members of Pitt’s administration, along with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

Ronald Linden, a professor of political science and member of Dor Hadash, said all three congregations that used the Tree of Life building were full of academics and on any given Saturday the rabbi could have led a faculty meeting.

Linden told the crowd that we need to move ahead by the “three ups … you need to show up, you need to vote up. … Politicians will respond when they are punished at the polls for their hate speech, for their laxity on gun control, and for the disparagement that they offer us to our precious heritage. And we will speak up.”

Maggie Bupp, graduate student services administrator in the Theatre Arts Department, shows support at the rally. (Susan Jones/University of Pittsburgh)

He exhorted people to call out those who

use offensive language about “African-Americans, transgendered people, gay people, Muslims, Jews … You tell them such speech is unacceptable. … We are Pittsburghers, and we will not be silent.”

Elizabeth Rangel, director of communications for the Learning Research & Development Center, spoke about her friend Joyce Fienberg, a retired LRDC researcher who was killed in the attack. Rangel said she would take her inspiration to be a “thoughtful caring person to everyone” from Fienberg, who was “known for bringing people together and creating community.

Abdesalam Soudi, a lecturer in the Linguistics department, told PittWire, "As a faculty member at Pitt, I always want my students to feel safe and hopeful about the future and have striven in several ways to make my classroom a welcoming space. Events like this make it difficult to feel that the work we do will make a difference. Yet as Chancellor Gallagher put it, we must all 'tip in.' Our participation at the Pitt Stronger than Hate tribute is evidence of this tipping in and speaks to the thoughtful, caring, generous, and inclusive attributes of the Pitt family."

Later in the week, Chancellor Gallagher at the Senate Council meeting praised the efforts of everyone involved in the Nov. 5 vigil. He said the amazing response across campus to the tragedy is “a special indicator of our strength.”

After the meeting, Gallagher said the rapid and multifaceted response by Pitt — from the Pitt Police to the medical teams to student groups offering comfort — on the day of the shootings showed how entwined the University is with the Squirrel Hill community and with Pittsburgh. He said going forward the University will continue to play a role in recovering from the tragedy, but how that takes shape will come from the community.

Gallagher said there are already discussions across Pitt about advancing the dialogue about “resiliency to hate. ... That is something we can do.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.

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