How One Mother Used the Attack Against her Family to Teach her Children Never to Hide from Hate
Q & A with Tammy Schnitzer
Editor’s Note: In the early 1990s, Tammy Schnitzer, a fourth generation Montanan, began chronicling a series of hate motivated threats and attacks against the small Jewish community in Billings, MT. A recent convert to Judaism and new congregant of Congregation Beth Aaron, Schnitzer was troubled to see how engrained the threat of hate had become in her new house of worship. She wanted to do something about it, but suddenly found her own home and family a direct target of hate. NIOT.org spoke with Schnitzer, whose story was featured in the original Not In Our Town documentary, about her experience and the impact of the community support her family received.
Photo: Tammy Schnitzer looks out the shattered window of her son's bedroom. Courtesy The Billings Gazette.
NIOT.org: What was your goal in chronicling incidents of hate against Congregation Beth Aaron?
Tammy Schnitzer: I stepped forward and started documenting these incidents [against the Jewish community,] hate letters, bomb threats, hateful heckling and taunting, and presenting it to people that I considered to have power -- congressmen, senators, and our local editor of our newspaper. I did this in a very grassroots, very naïve way, as a young mom. I took my kids in and gave them evidence of what was going on, helping them see the face of the victims, with tangible evidence of what was happening. So in the fall of 1995, during our Rosh Hashana services, when we had bomb threats against our synagogue, the community was already aware that we were having problems. And when the Jewish cemetery was desecrated, my community already knew we were having problems. But it still wasn’t front-page news.
The most frightening thing for me personally was I felt I was setting my family up, because the more you advertise [these acts], there is that threat of confrontation and perpetrators often feel a need to assert themselves on another level. The biggest scare for me was what if my community did not respond when things were going to get worse for my family. And they were going to [get worse]. But in order to show the community that this threat was actually there, I felt I needed to bring [the acts of these perpetrators] to the surface. And to do so, would mean my babies would be involved.
NIOT.org: When a brick was thrown through the window of your son’s bedroom which displayed a menorah for Hannukah, the local newspaper The Billings Gazette printed a pullout of a menorah in support of your family. How did the community respond and what impact did this have on your family?
Tammy Schnitzer: Suddenly, people couldn’t turn their backs to this and say this was one isolated incident. The end result was that 10,000 menorahs were lifted and placed in people’s homes. All I cared about was what I was teaching my children. And I needed that opportunity to show Isaac and Rachel, my children, that you didn’t hide from this, you don’t run from bullies, you don’t run from terrorists, you hold your ground, and most importantly you don’t accept anything less than the right to walk the streets and proudly proclaim who you are. And so when 10,000 menorahs were placed in the windows of Billings, MT, it allowed me to walk down the street with my son [who was in kindergarten] and look at every one of those menorahs and have him stand proud and tall. And I remember him saying, “they must all be Jewish.” And I said, “No, they are all different religions. But they’re here to let you know that there are 10,000 arms wrapping themselves around you saying it’s safe. It’s safe to say here, ‘You’re Isaac Schnitzer, a Jew,’ you walk on.”
NIOT.org: You also had the support of local law enforcement. How was that important?
Tammy Schnitzer: I felt like I had some recourse and there was a sense of safety behind me. I did have a police force behind me, and thank god for [then Billings Police Chief ] Wayne Inman who understood that these hate groups can be very radical, escalate to some very scary things and even intimidate to death. U.S. Marshals officers were guarding my house; and my kids were escorted to school by them. I felt a sense of protection.
NIOT.org: You spoke out publicly about what happened to your family and the local newspaper covered the incident. What advice would you have for victims of hate that might be too scared to come forward, and what role can the community play in these situations?
Tammy Schnitzer: If that person is scared and can’t move forward, I expect nothing more than them to survive. It’s those of us who can breath, who can take a step forward, it is our responsibility to help them out. There are consequences to every action, and [there are] consequences to inaction too. Riding that fence of indifference, you are supporting the perpetrator and now someone else is at risk. I can’t sleep at night if I have information of that sort. And moving forward may be as simple as sitting down with your children and reading the daily newspaper with them and saying, “how would this feel if this were you?” And, “what do we do to make this situation better?”
It’s about creating empathy and finding ways to open up conversation.