By Adam Reinherz
Pennsylvania elected officials held a press conference May 9 outside the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha building — where a mass shooting took place on Oct. 27, leaving 11 congregants dead — to announce a package of bills regarding hate crimes.
As explained by state Rep. Dan Frankel, state Sen. Jay Costa and state Rep. Ed Gainey, the proposed legislation would revise current statutes by expanding protections for LGBTQ and disabled people, increase civil and criminal penalties for hate crimes, provide education to those who commit hate crimes and update the commonwealth’s current tracking practices for hate crimes and their actors. The proposed bills would also create both a private right of action for civil rights violations and a reporting system for postsecondary institutions.
Frankel described current hate crime-related legislature as ineffective.
“It’s inadequate from the standpoint of being comprehensive and inclusive of everybody, and from giving law enforcement the tools to help police hate crimes,” he said.
It is additionally deficient, he added, by failing to distinguish between people “who put graffiti on a stop sign” and those who “put a swastika on a synagogue. Obviously, there are different intentions behind those acts, and we need to be able to be able to call out the hate crime for what it is, and penalize people for committing those crimes.”
Among the attendees at the gathering were those immediately impacted by the acts of Oct. 27.
“I hope for the day where we don’t need these kinds of laws, where they’re not necessary,” said Tree of Life*Or L’ Simcha spiritual advisor Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers. “While I’m appreciative that Rep. Frankel and our legislature want to take action on this, it’s also for me a sad moment that we have to create laws because people just can’t work, live and play together.”
Barry Werber, a member of New Light Congregation and a survivor of the attack, echoed Myers’ lament and recalled the racism, xenophobia and hatred he observed during his military service 50 years ago.
“I was stationed in the South in the 1960s, and I never thought I’d see it in Pittsburgh in the 21st century,” he said. “I got thrown out of the house because I was dating a woman of a different faith and her father didn’t like the fact that I was Jewish. But I never thought I’d see it here.”
Between announcing the proposed legislation outside the Tree of Life building, and having those “who were here that day or had family members here that day” attend the public event, the experience was both “incredibly moving” and humbling, Frankel said.
“It’s been a heart-wrenching experience for everybody in my community, and I’m certainly no exception to this. It’s hard to talk about,” he said. “I’m moved by the fact that these folks who were here today and those that came up to Harrisburg in April view it as kind of an important mission for them to be engaged in this process to help our community heal, to help themselves heal, but also to look to elected leaders to help us through the healing process, which includes trying to address the issues of hate and violence in our communities through legislation.”
Adam Reinherz is a staff writer at the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.