Rabbi won’t be using the ‘H’ word in his fight against extremism

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers speaks to group


Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Synagogue told the participants of the Center on Race and Social Problems Summer Institute that the horrors he experienced the day a gunman came and fatally shot 11 worshippers have caused him to abandon saying the word “hate.”

“Just as we do not, or at least should not, swear in public or in private, I pledge to add the word to that collection of four-letter expletives that I will not use,” Myers said. “The ‘H’ word is an extreme word, and extreme language will usually lead to extreme action, such as a massacre in a synagogue.”

Myers presented the keynote address to the crowd of roughly 100 on June 26 in the CRSP Summer Institute: “Race and Hate Crime — And What We Can Do About It.” Activists, elected officials, Pitt faculty and staff and more attended the institute. 

The goal for participants was clear: Come up with tangible strategies to address hate and hate crimes in Pittsburgh and beyond

James Huguley, assistant professor in the School of Sociology and incoming director of CRSP, said that the topic of hate speech and hate crimes is timely and has affected so many.

“This issue is both a very public issue, and a very private issue for everyone, I’m sure,” Huguley said. “We all know people that have been affected by this, we’ve been affected by this. It’s not just something on paper — it’s more than just an academic exercise.”

Mark Nordenberg, who was Pitt’s chancellor when retiring Director Larry Davis first established CRSP in 2002, said hate and hate crimes are something “Americans have become all too familiar with.”

“Their frequency and their brutality not only are frightening, but are beyond the comprehension of most of us,” Nordenberg said. “And the targets of these crimes seem to know no bounds.”

Those targets included places that are usually considered to be sanctuaries, he added. Some examples include the nine African-Americans killed at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 and the massacre of 51 people in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. Both of these crimes were committed by white supremacists.

And, of course, another target was the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood last year.

“No one will ever be able to answer why someone thinks that it is their God-given right to walk into a synagogue and murder 11 people, that this act will solve their problems,” Myers said. “If anything, the (opposite) became true. The massacre empowered people in new ways, to become more vocal, more active and more caring to their neighbors. This horror forcefully thrust us into a club that no one wants to join, that is expanding at a terrible rate.”

Myers said he learned many lessons after the shooting. The national discourse, especially among elected officials, needs to be “toned down.” He said he also learned that “although we live in ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’ we don’t know our neighbors” and are quick to form “negative generalizations about people who are different from us, usually because we don’t understand them.”

“We live in silos,” Myers said. “And despite there being 446 bridges in Pittsburgh, our silos are free standing with no bridges to the other silos. We do not know our neighbors, their faiths, their customs and their practices.” 

Myers’ final message was that everyone, regardless of race, religion and sexual orientation, needs to get to know each other better to help prevent hate speech and hate crimes. 

Following the keynote was a panel discussion with several Pittsburgh Community stakeholders, including Esther Bush, president & CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh; Heath Johnson, a crime analysis coordinator with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police; Wasi Mohamed, former executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh; Daphne Retter, chief of staff for state Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill; and Ja’Nae Tyler, a public health program administrator and LGBTQ+ victim advocate.

Each member of the panel presented their perspectives on hate speech and hate crimes in their respective communities.

Bush, Mohamed and Tyler echoed Myers’ point that more community fellowship can help stamp out hate speech and hate crimes, especially among people with different faiths and sexual orientations.

Johnson said that even though the rate of hate crimes, more specifically, people charged with ethnic intimidation, has stayed relatively stable in the Pittsburgh area, law enforcement is working to be more proactive than reactive when it comes to these crimes.

Huguley said he wanted to have a panel with as many diverse perspectives as possible to help fuel discourse at the institute.

“The panel gave us a lot of different perspectives from policing, to how the LGBTQ community is affected and impacted,” Huguley said. “And how people can’t sit on the sidelines on this, and people have to be active. And, in many ways, how we have a personal responsibility to engage people close to us so that we can get at the root of a hate crime place for someone.”

Donovan Harrell is a reporter for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.