It was a quiet night during Chanukah 1994, in the peaceful town of Billings, Mont., when a brick crashed through 6-year-old Isaac Schnitzer’s window. At that moment, Tammie Schnitzer became an activist.
“I am just a mother,” insisted the woman who refused to accept the hatred that confronted her family, just because they were Jewish.
A few days later, when her son brought home a hate newsletter that had been thrown on the floor at his school, that same mother wouldn’t listen to a police officer who told her that it was her fault for putting a menorah in her window, or to people in the community who warned her, “Don’t rock the boat” and “Get used to it!”
When Schnitzer went to the local newspaper, the editor surprised her with his strong support; he not only published the news about the vandalism on the front page, but printed a full-page paper menorah for people to display in their own windows as a sign of solidarity.
The next morning, Isaac’s 6-year-old friend Rebecca showed up with one of the paper menorahs and a roll of tape, and meticulously hung a new menorah on her friend’s window.
“She was truly our hero,” Schnitzer recalled.
Within a month, 10,000 paper menorahs decorated the windows throughout Billings, a community with few Jews, which rallied together to fight the hate crimes that threatened to divide them.
“This wasn’t just a Jewish issue, but a community issue,” said Schnitzer. “We, as Jews, had a responsibility to step forward and say, ‘We’ve been hurt.’ And our greater community needed to take that hurt and run with it.”
Since then, Schnitzer, who continues to serve on numerous national and local boards and committees to advocate human rights, has been traveling throughout the country, inspiring audiences with her story, delivering the message about the importance of fighting the battle against intolerance.
Last month, on the 72nd anniversary of Kristallnacht, Schnitzer was a guest at the Merrick Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation on the South Shore of Long Island.
Welcoming the audience of congregants and students of the community Hebrew high school, Rabbi Charles Klein, the synagogue’s spiritual leader, explained, “Kristallnacht teaches us that we who are alive today must remain vigilant and not permit the smallest seed of hatred against any group to take root in our country. Kristallnacht begins with the Jewish people, but does not end there. The message of Kristallnacht is to never allow anyone’s dignity to be robbed. If we are quiet, little lies grow to be big lies and become very dangerous. We must work together to make sure that a Kristallnacht never happens again and that we never repeat the tragedies of history.”
Schnitzer’s visit to Merrick was the idea of congregants Ruth and Barry Silverman, after they heard her speak at a synagogue in Connecticut.
The program included a 15-minute film, “Not in Our Town,” about the solidarity effort in Billings, after which Schnitzer shared her own story.
The evening ended with an inter-denominational panel whose five members participated in a dialogue intended to promote greater understanding among people from different backgrounds.
Habeeb Ahmed, chairman of the board of trustees of the Islamic Center of Long Island, emphasized, “It is very important that we speak for each other.”
Pastor Laurie B. Cline, of Saint John in the neighboring town of Bellmore, added, “We can learn from history, but too often we don’t. We need to be consistent in our resistance to the collective amnesia about what happened in the past, and we must be consistent in our respect for one another.”
Rabbi Klein summed up the feelings of many present that evening.
“Tammie’s presentation left us inspired and questioning a lot about ourselves and what it means to be a good neighbor,” he said. “We are good people, but we’re not good enough in being able to understand how we need to confront evil. We are each so filled with our own pain, that we don’t pay attention to the pain of others. Tammie’s story makes us realize that we need to pay more attention, to care about one another and to respect one another. The people of Billings, Mont., took us to school tonight and taught us a most valuable lesson.”