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Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting Hits Home for SCU History Professor

Brillman struggles to understand attack on “small but strong” Jewish community

By Julia MacIntyre ‘21

When a gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 11 people lost their lives. The mass shooting was the largest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, which for Professor Michael Brillman (History) hit painfully close.

Brillman, a Pittsburgh native, spent much of his childhood attending the Tree of Life. He celebrated his bar mitzvah and attended weddings and holiday services at the synagogue, which is five minutes away from his childhood home. Members of his family, including his 96-year-old uncle, still regularly attend services at the synagogue, although no family members were present at the time of the shooting.

“I saw him a few days after this terrible event. He was distraught and rattled,” shares postdoctoral Fellow David Tamayo (History). “He also was relieved that none of his family members who still attend the synagogue were there at that time.”

Brillman describes the synagogue as a pillar of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, which, in his words, “is small but strong.” Brillman knew two of the men who were killed in the shooting, brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, from his youth. The Rosenthals were “fixtures of the community’ who always greeting people as they entered, handing out prayer books, and staying after prayers to make sure everything was clean and intact.

During the three days that followed the massacre, Brillman was confronted with a sequential range of emotions. For the first 24 hours, he was numb, walking around unable to comprehend the tragic events that had occurred at one of the most fundamental building blocks of his childhood. His second day after the shooting was fueled by a militant anger, and the third an overwhelming sadness. During these early stages of his grief, Brillman even imagined striking back at the attackers. “I had created these plans in my head that I was going to infiltrate a Nazi organization and take them down.”

Letting those feelings of revenge go, Brillman turned his energies to helping comfort and protect his six-year-old son. “My boy is scared because he doesn’t quite understand, he’s saying, ‘is someone going to break into the house and kill me?’ You can either laugh or you can cry, [so] I wanted to come to a place of calmness [for my son].”

As a scholar of European History, Brillman has a unique understanding of anti-semitism in both Europe and America. As he recounted the “worldwide problem” of anti-semitism, Brillman explained that “just like racism against black people, or misogyny against women, [anti-semitism] is a worldwide phenomenon… We find desecrations of Jewish cemeteries not only in Germany but also in France, Italy, Scandinavia.” The Tree of Life synagogue attack is the most recent evidence of the long-existent anti-Semitic attitudes in the U.S., as well.

While the anti-Jewish rhetoric in America does not keep Brillman from strongly defending the First Amendment, he does see limits to it. “I think it’s one of the foundations of our democracy, to be able to express yourself freely without fear of repercussions. But I think that the threshold for [free speech] is the inciting of violence. There is no reason [someone needs to] be able to display their guns and share a message of violence.”

Brillman has been heartened by the response to the tragedy, noting that it “has been so warm. From Muslims in Pittsburgh raising money for the victims to the vigils being held across the country,” he wholeheartedly believes that “we are going to counter this hate with good people who won’t stand for [it].”

While Brillman acknowledges that the tragedy in Pittsburgh won’t be remedied overnight, he hopes that it “will make [society] more conscious and prepared to speak out against any injustice against anyone…If you see something that is wrong or someone being treated poorly, I hope that you would have the courage to say to someone ‘This isn’t right.’”



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