For Pittsburgh, Oct. 27 is a date that will forever live in the shadow of tragedy, especially for the city’s Jewish community. Organizers at the upcoming Eradicate Hate Global Summit hope to call attention to the way Pittsburghers responded to the attack — with unity and grace.
The summit, slated to run at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center Oct. 18-20, will bring together experts from government, academia, law, the nonprofit sector, corporations and journalism to drive solutions for combating hatred. It stems from the tragedy of the Oct. 27, 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, where 11 worshippers were killed in the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.
“I do not think there is anything in my life, particularly anything that did not involve a family member, that touched me as emotionally as the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue did,” says Mark Nordenberg, co-chair of the Eradicate Hate Global Summit. “I have a hard time comprehending how people can do such things to other people. … So when given the chance to try to produce something constructive out of that tragedy, I really welcomed that opportunity.”
Nordenberg is also chancellor emeritus and chair of the Institute of Politics at the University of Pittsburgh. He’s been named Pittsburgh’s Person of the Year by Pittsburgh Magazine and a History Maker by the Senator John Heinz History Center, and was recently appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court as the chair of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission. This is the group that will be in charge of redistricting in the state.
He says two things came his way back in 2018, both of which would ultimately contribute to the creation of the summit.
First, leaders of the Jewish Federation had approached him and asked him to serve on an independent committee they were creating. This committee was charged with the task of fairly distributing the millions of dollars in undesignated donations that had been made to the Victims of Terror Fund following the attack at Tree of Life.
Through that endeavor, he and Jared Cohon — professor and president emeritus of Carnegie Mellon University — became co-chairs of a commemoration, memorialization and education subcommittee that would ultimately create the foundation for the Collaboratory Against Hate. The Collaboratory is a joint research and action center between Pitt and CMU aimed at understanding how extremist hate is generated and how to minimize its impact. The expectation, he says, is that the summit will become an annual event, and the Collaboratory will serve as its permanent home.
“It will have not only a home, but a really good home, because the Collaboratory will be so well-positioned to nurture work in between summits in ways that few organizations could,” he says.
The second thing to come his way was Laura Ellsworth.
Almost immediately after the attack, Nordenberg says he received a call from Ellsworth, his former student, a distinguished lawyer and the partner-in-charge of global community service initiatives at Jones Day — one of the largest law firms in the world. Ellsworth is serving with Nordenberg as a co-chair for the summit.
“She said, ‘We really need to do something to make certain that Pittsburgh is remembered for the way it responded to this terrible attack, and not simply remembered as the site of the attack,’” he said. “She proposed that we create in Pittsburgh the biggest and best anti-hate conference in the world. And that’s how it all began.”
The conference was ready to go last year, but like so many other events, it was put on hold as the COVID-19 pandemic raged. While Nordenberg says there were rational arguments to postpone it again, they decided that it was manageable and that the need for the work was urgent. But the pandemic’s impact will still be felt: While they were initially expecting upward of 2,000 people at the event, the tally is now expected to be closer to 500.
Still, he explains that most of the speakers will be coming in person, and the event will be livestreamed for folks who want to participate but can’t be there physically. The smaller count is still impressively big, too, and having fewer attendees can be more advantageous to those who do come. The time is right. They should press forward, he says.
Pressing forward is exactly what conference organizers are doing. With a handful of keynote speakers and more than 100 additional speakers, too, the conference has drawn a line-up that includes some high-profile names. Among them are former President George W. Bush; Alice Wairimu Nderitu, special adviser on the prevention of genocide for the United Nations; Trish Adlesic, an Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning documentary producer and director with Pittsburgh roots; Salam Al-Marayati, president and co-founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council ; and Major Elliott Garrett, chief Washington correspondent for CBS News.
“What you find is that Pittsburgh is a tight-knit community, but it’s also a community of people who have a lot of connections in other places,” Nordenberg says. “If you approach it in the right way, you can be pretty successful in bringing people to Pittsburgh. And of course, Pittsburgh already was known for the way in which it responded to this attack.”
People in the city stood up for each other, Nordenberg says.
That’s “something that has not always been a part of the sad story of antisemitism,” he says. “I think people were attracted to the community of Pittsburgh as well.”
He also mentions columns and articles that popped up not only within the city’s newspapers like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Tree of Life shooting — but throughout the rest of the country, too. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post. Many of these stories shared a common message: Pittsburgh is a different kind of place.
“Danny Schiff [is] a rabbi who splits his time between Israel and Pittsburgh and a really impressive guy. He wrote a compelling and somewhat scholarly column in the Washington Post and people all around the country were getting the word that this was a horrible attack that occurred in a wonderful place, and I think it would be hard to overestimate the emotional appeal in attracting people to participate,” Nordenberg says.
The summit’s goals are twofold, part inspirational and part action-oriented. The diversity of perspectives represented in its speakers will hopefully contribute to a “cross-disciplinary education.” Not only will the attendees walk away having learned something from the speakers, but the speakers will learn from each other, too.
It’s being supported financially by an “impressive array” of foundations that are mostly Pittsburgh-based, as well as Jones Day, a founding supporter headquartered in Cleveland, and the Carnegie Corporation in New York.
While the support of these foundations and organizations has meant a great deal, Nordenberg says the support from the victims’ families has meant a lot, too.
“Laura and I have met with a number of groups to describe the summit and to get both reactions and suggestions relating to it. Among the groups we met with were the families of those who were killed, and it was clear that they were very glad that work of this type was being pressed forward,” he says. “That was very important to us.”
Anyone interested in registering for the summit can do so by requesting an invitation on the event’s website. There is a “modest fee,” but the summit is positioned to provide financial help to those who need it.