Stronger than hate: MSU professor speaks about tragedy
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Stronger than hate: MSU professor speaks about tragedy

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Rebecca Yeomans-Stephenson, Staff Reporter

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On Saturday, October 27, 11 people were killed and six people were wounded at the hands of Robert D. Bowers at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Michigan State University Professor Margot Valles was deeply horrified to learn that a place so close to her childhood home had been the victim of a mass shooting.

Early Saturday morning, worshippers at the Tree of Life Congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood were located in different rooms when Bowers entered the synagogue with an assault rifle and three handguns. Bowers fired at the worshippers for several minutes.

As he was departing the synagogue, Bowers was met by armed police officers with whom he exchanged fire. Eventually, the shooter moved back into the synagogue where he barricaded himself inside a room and proceeded to surrender. By the time Bowers surrendered, 11 people had been killed and six wounded, four of which were police officers.

Valles, a MSU Literature and Jewish Studies professor, was deeply concerned when she received a message from her sister detailing the events of her hometown.
“At 10:20 [a.m.] I got a message from my sister who lives in Pittsburgh saying what was happening. Then I spent the whole day connecting with friends and family trying to make sure everybody was safe,” Valles said. “The reason he targeted Tree of Life in particular was the way that that synagogue and congregation [were] supporting refugees.”

After learning that all of her extended family was safe, Valles began to look for information regarding other people she knew in the community, one of these individuals being a friend who leads services at the attacked synagogue.

“I didn’t know about my parents’ friend who leads one of the services at Tree of Life,” Valles said. “It turns he was the person shot in the abdomen. Luckily, his outlook is now good, but he’s still in the hospital, needing many more surgeries.”
Valles also knew Rose Mallinger, the oldest victim of the shooting.

“[I knew] Rose Mallinger, the 97-year-old who died. My grandparents lived about four doors down [from her], [and] my dad and his brothers grew up with the Mallinger family,” Valles said. “There [are] all these weird connections and things that you don’t even think of when you hear about the people who have died. You don’t realize how much people influence other people’s lives.”

Squirrel Hill is such a tight knit community, the fact that another shooting occurred
in a house of worship shocked members of society.

“It’s a wonderful community,” Valles said. “Often times communities are divided, people who go to one synagogue have negative feelings about the other ones. But in Squirrel Hill, lots of people from different denominations attend services at different synagogues.”

Valles remembers a time when she too would participate in services at different synagogues including Tree of Life, helping create a unique and intertwined community.
“Even though I went to the other Conservative synagogue, I prayed every Saturday afternoon at Tree of Life which was around the block from my house,” Valles said.
The Squirrel Hill neighborhood is one that Valles describes as interconnected, people work to help one another, especially in the trying times following the Tree of Life mass shooting.

“The response of Pittsburghers has been amazing both within and without the Jewish community. The whole city is rallying to support the victims and their families,” Valles said. “The Muslim community raised a huge amount of money for the Jewish funeral costs and medical expenses of the victims. Within a day they had raised $70,000, which is incredible.”

Pittsburgh isn’t the only community raising awareness and assistance for the victims and their families. Here in Okemos, local synagogues put together a service in honor of those lost or injured during the shooting.

“Shaarey Zedek, and the other synagogue in town, Kehillat Israel, and the Interfaith Clergy Association of Greater Lansing put together a service and vigil that had twice as many people there than normally attend on the high holidays,” Valles said. “Most of the people there were from churches and from the Islamic Center there to support the community. It was really special.”

Valles understood the importance of having people in a community far from Pittsburgh unite under such circumstances.

“We’re six hours away, and to see all of those people there most of whom are only there because they want to show support for their neighbors,” Valles said.
Since the shooting on Oct. 27, Robert D. Bowers now faces state charges of homicide, assault and ethnic intimidation, as well as 29 criminal counts including a hate crime, obstructing the free exercise of religious belief.

It was concluded that Bowers intended this act to be a hate crime because he was fully targeting Jews. Bowers was recognized for threatening Jewish communities in the past and considered their religious place of worship the ideal place to disrupt the peace. These hateful actions shown by Bowers sparked the Stronger Than Hate movement which helped Pittsburgh unite after this tragedy.

Valles believes that tragedies are common in today’s world, but people don’t always understand the effects until they are directly impacted.

“There are so many tragedies that it’s hard to stay moved by each new thing that happens,” Valles said. “It’s only when we hear personal stories, then it becomes real and makes us alive to all the other suffering that happens around us.”