PITTSBURGH, Pa. (WTAJ) — Hate crimes have been on the rise across the U.S. and members of the Jewish faith have recently become a frequent target. Pennsylvania has also seen a sharp increase with 255 hate crimes reported last year, according to data maintained by the Pennsylvania State Police.
Officials across the state worry that the current war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is inspiring more hate against the Jewish people.
“The first emotion is disbelief,” Alan Hausman, the president of the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh said when asked what his reaction to the Hamas attacks was. “Is this really happening? This can’t be happening.”
Hausman knows all too well that hate can become deadly. It has been just five years since 11 people were killed at his congregation in the worst act of antisemitism in U.S. history.
“My real job is in public safety, and it is the first and only time ever in my career that I received a page that said active shooter,” Hausman said.
Hausman explains the impacts of the shooting are still felt in their community. Despite their best efforts, it is hard to not be on edge every day.
“Pittsburgh is a big small town,” Hausman said. “Everybody knows somebody. The whole community knew folks that were in here. Some of our folks that were killed walked the streets here in Squirrel Hill.”
The area outside of the Tree of Life Congregation will soon be transformed into a memorial for the 11 victims, ensuring that they are never forgotten. For now, people from all across the country have continued to leave flowers, painted rocks, decorations and messages of hope in the flower gardens outside.
“Everything from the simple items such as the stones you see, to people’s shirts and sneakers,” Hausman said. “A guitar. Pill bottles because a couple of the people killed were physicians and a dentist.”
Despite this showing of community support, the congregation has continued to be a target. Hausman said he is in contact with the FBI daily, reporting more incidents with leaflets, online and voicemail threats and even spray-painted messages.
Almost every congregation in Pittsburgh now has armed guards to hopefully deter and prevent another tragedy. In his investigating role, Hausman has taken much of their security measures into his own hands.
“We do periodic bag checks,” Hausman said. “We’re watching everyone in services so yeah, it has changed the whole dynamic of coming to service.”
Closer to home, at Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, they have also begun taking more precautions. Rabbi Audrey Korotkin said the local police have even contacted them to warn them and offer their support.
“We do the best that we can to keep our people protected,” Korotkin said. “When necessary we go on Zoom just for our own protection.”
Korotkin says she still worries about the safety of her congregation, and those who have friends or relatives currently in Israel.
“Women being raped, children being decapitated, people being taken and held hostage now,” Korotkin said. “I can’t even imagine what the people of Israel are going through. Everybody knows somebody who was impacted.”
Like Penn State student Benjamin Himmel, who has felt the impacts of the ongoing war personally.
“My friends have lost their cousins, my friends are being called up to the reserves, my friends are front lines defending the Jewish people,” Himmel said. “This isn’t a political thing, this is really about humanity.”
In the past month, Himmel has attended a vigil at Old Main on Penn State’s campus to mourn those who have been impacted by the conflict. He has also been present at two other pro-Palestine protests, where he and his friends were present with counter-demonstrations.
Just last week they parked a moving truck across College Avenue from the Allen Street Gates, covered in posters showing those who have been kidnapped by Hamas since the war began.
“Historically, our campus has not had an organized anti-Israel movement,” Himmel said. “Sadly that has changed because of this conflict.”
Political leaders have also begun searching for ways to combat hate crimes. Earlier this week three bills passed the state house, which would create more training for police and school officials on how to report and prevent acts of hate. One bill would create harsher penalties for those who commit the crimes and even require them to take diversity and tolerance classes.
Back in Pittsburgh though, Hausman said we need to focus more on the human element and rethink what “tolerance” is.
“Tolerate” is the wrong word when we are talking about people,” Hausman said. “We tolerate the weather, we tolerate a root canal but when we are dealing with people we want to accept people.”
The Tree of Life Congregation has had success in inviting people of all religious backgrounds to their services and events. Not to convert them, but to reach a greater understanding of others and form a greater sense of community.
“As you can see I’m wearing a shirt that says “Stronger Than Hate” because I really believe that we are stronger than hate,” Hausman said. “But I’m also wearing a hat that says stronger together.”