By Scarlett Siegel
As I woke up late on Saturday morning, October 27, tired from the Halloween Dance the night before, I was sluggish and lazy getting out of bed. I pleaded with my dad to let me have a relaxing day, not a crazy one. I wanted to focus on my school assignment, which was to write a speech. As I sat up, my phone buzzed, and it was a text from my sister, Jemma, to look at the morning’s news. I quickly clicked on, but my smile faded when I saw a text that ran like tears falling down a face. It announced: “Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting leaves at Least 4 Dead,” and under the title it said: “Could Possibly be a Hate Crime.” As my eyes flashed across the page from left to right, I read on and on about the shooting, and each word made me feel worse. You would never think that on a lazy Saturday morning, there could be something so incredibly awful affecting innocent people.
When I finished reading the article, I sat back and closed my eyes. I remembered a story my Dad had told me about when he was a boy. It was 1986, and my dad was in his senior year of high school. As the students in his class sat down at their desks, one of his peers said, “Let’s put Siegel in the radiator and see if he screams.” A radiator — as in the mechanism that produces heat inside a building. The class laughed at the joke, not actually knowing what it meant to my dad. During WWII, 6 million Jews, and 3 million gypsies, handicapable people, homosexuals, and people of color were killed by the Nazis in concentration camps. At the age of 50, my Dad still hears this boy’s words in his head, making him feel like the world was never going to change from 1936 to 1986.
I have never had experience like my Dad’s. I go to a school where educators work hard to promote equality and kindness. Yet, there were those words on my computer screen on that Saturday morning.
Hate of any kind is disturbing. But I’ve always had the thought in the back of my mind that some people have a special hate for me, even though they don’t know anything about me. They hate me because I represent Judaism, and I’m proud to be a Jew. All those class periods spent quietly hiding my tears while a video stretched on and on about the Holocaust. Those class periods where all I could do was sit straight and have a blank expression. Even on my first week of GFA we had to talk about neo-Nazis because of the protests in North Carolina. When I read the prompts for writing my speech, I had no idea what to do. I think I didn’t know what to do because I was afraid — afraid of the reactions of the audience, afraid of what people might think. This is what consumes my thoughts sometimes. And maybe it seems scary, but to me it seems like something that is right beneath the surface.
What I'd like to say to you is that hate is casual. It shows up in language that people toss around, like using a slur for being gay, or a slur against African-Americans. It shows up in jokes that people don’t even understand, like the one my father still remembers 33 years later. It shows up when somebody bombs a church in Birmingham, AL, in 1963, and a shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018.
But I didn’t write this speech to scare you, or make you feel upset. I came here to tell you that the only way that you can get through hate is with love.
Do you remember when you were a little kid, and you accidentally fell and scraped your knee? I usually don't remember that part, but I like to remember the part after, the part when someone comes to your side and helps you, tells you jokes to make you laugh, and puts a Band-Aid on the scrape, covering up all the tears with giggles and smiles. That is what I think of when I think about love conquering hate. Something happened, and it's not pleasant, but the only way to get past it is through the help of others. You become stronger in the end by not letting it consume your thoughts and feelings, or change the way you are.
On a recent Saturday morning I went to synagogue and I read the mourners’ Kaddish. Mourners say Kaddish to show that despite the loss. they still praise God, they won’t give in to what others want, and they will put their best foot forward. On that Saturday, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh had never been so crowded, filled to the brink with love. People said prayers and sat together in silence, remembering those who were killed and hurt in the attacks, and those still recovering. I went to my synagogue to be a part of what was happening, to add to that love that was 400 miles away in the Tree of Life Synagogue.
You cannot forget what has happened, but with love, healing can start to take place. As little as a Band-Aid, or as big as a room filled with people becoming stronger together.
Scarlett delivered this speech at this year's MLK Commemoration. Click here to see that and other speeches from the assembly.