Letter to the Editor: Student solidarity for the Jewish community

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

The Carnegie Mellon fence became the symbol of a grave on the night of the Oct. 29. Students painted the fence black, with two white Stars of David sketched on the vertical pillars. And then the students invited the campus community to engage in the Jewish ritual of placing a small rock on the fence as testimony that the grave was visited and the individual’s passing mourned. This is just one example of the host of actions taken by the Carnegie Mellon students in response to the horrifying tragedy at the Tree of Life synagogue last week on Saturday, Oct. 27. While there are far too many instances to enumerate individually and I provide examples of a few below, the massive show of support that I have received from Carnegie Mellon students (and the broader campus community) has made the grief somewhat more manageable.

I teach on Mondays and Wednesdays and came to class on the Monday following the shooting, prepared to teach. As the class time drew near and I took my position at the front of the room, it became clear that I was unable to focus on the material and unable to stand up and lecture. I simply sat down at the table with the students and opened a conversation about the events of the previous weekend. I told the students that I had been attending services in my own synagogue (not Tree of Life) on Saturday morning, that we had been in lockdown, that parents had huddled with their children and that we had not known whether the shooter was headed in our direction after Tree of Life. I also told them that I am proud to be Jewish but now a little more frightened to be a member of this minority group. I then invited students to ask me questions. I only managed to remain in the classroom for 15 minutes before stating that I could not continue and, instead, invited the students to come talk to me in my office if they wished. It only took a couple of minutes before a line of students, neatly arranged in single file in the corridor of Baker Hall, appeared outside my door. Students entered individually or in pairs, hugged me, and expressed their outrage and their condolences. Many students had already emailed me over the preceding weekend expressing concern about the safety of my family and offering to provide assistance for my affected community.

One such email received just after noon on Saturday the 27th reads “I unfortunately lived through this numerous times in my home country (name deleted), so I know how anything I can say will not help when these things happen in your community.... Please let me know though if there is absolutely any way I can help anyone you know (or don’t know), blood, transportation, etc. anything I can do. My number is 412-xx)”.

And I am grateful to so many other students on campus. There was the extraordinary effort and commitment of a group of grieving students who partnered with the university to plan and then host Monday’s gathering in Rangos, and the Carnegie Mellon students — Jewish and not Jewish — who flocked to this service in Rangos on Monday evening, requiring a second overflow location in the Cohon Center. And the students whom I have only encountered occasionally on campus but who still left notes under my office door expressing their sympathy. And the members of the Alpha Epsilon Phi fraternity who donated all the food originally intended for their 412FoodRescue fundraiser so that it could be shared by students looking for refuge and togetherness at the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion on Saturday night.

And this email: “Good evening Dr. Behrmann. First, I want to say that you and your family have my greatest condolences after the events that transpired this weekend. Although the lives of so many people have been cut short or immensely saddened, I am relieved that you are okay. As an African-American, I tend to lose sight of the hate that so many other minorities face in this country, so if it offers any kind of emotional support, I want you and your family to know that I will do my part, no matter how small, to contribute to the well-being of all citizens, and not just those who look like me."

And… it goes on.

For Jews, amongst the highest forms of praise a person can receive is to be referred to (in Yiddish) as a mensch. This word translates roughly into "a person of noble character, of integrity and honor." The Carnegie Mellon students showed their collective menschlichkeit this past week. I thank the students for their contributions this past week and am deeply grateful to be part of this amazing community. Together, we are all stronger.

Marlene Behrmann is a Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.