Participants at the Pitt Community United in Compassion event
We are two professors at the University of Pittsburgh—one Jewish, one Muslim. We are also close friends. We have seen American college campuses torn apart by conflict this fall, but we believe there is another way. A way for us to move forward.
On Oct. 26, we organized our first event together, called Pitt Community United in Compassion. Faculty, staff, students, and community leaders—including religious leaders—gathered from across the region. We yearned to create a supportive environment where people could gather, focus, meditate, foster meaningful connections, care for each other, and find solace amid the chaos of our lives. At first, we were unsure about what would unfold. But what transpired was powerful, positive, inspirational, and emotional.
We opened with our own personal reflections that led us to lead this event and then opened things up to the audience. We asked participants simple questions: What does compassion mean to you? How do you define compassion? Is there something from your own personal background—religion, upbringing, experiences—that has taught you compassion? Finally, we asked: How can our community at Pitt be more compassionate? Around 80 people attended the event.
Our motivation in organizing this event stemmed from seeing so many campuses torn apart by hatred and an inability to find common ground. Our antidote was to create a kind of prophylactic that would guide our community to celebrate our shared humanity and to prevent us from falling into the same vicious cycle. We aspired for people to walk away from the event feeling part of a larger community, armed with a new set of relationships—so that they could see inside the heart of people who may see the world differently.
Compassion is a timely response to conflict and tragedy.
We felt an extraordinary hunger on the part of our community, from people who are desperate to come together and understand others during such a difficult time. We held another forum in early December and have been invited by local religious leaders to hold a similar event for a multifaith audience at the end of January.
We believe our work speaks to the heart of the purpose of universities. We did not ask people to come together and share one view or one perspective. We are not trying to forge common ground on political issues. On the contrary, we acknowledge and embrace the significant differences among individuals, recognizing that war elicits diverse perspectives and emotions. Universities must foster diversity of viewpoints. But in the end, we must celebrate our shared humanity.
We did not just dream up this compassion framework. The values that guide us are deeply rooted in our upbringing and challenges we both faced.
Jennifer (Uzbekistan 1997-99)
I was blessed to grow up in Pittsburgh. Not just Pittsburgh, but Squirrel Hill. As a kid, we would walk to Tree of Life synagogue on Friday for oneg, only to head back again the next morning for services. Living just steps away, I remember every crack and crevice in the sidewalks on the way. It was a buoyant space at the height of American Jewish communal life. We felt so free—living in a community and a country that finally accepted us.
Squirrel Hill is one of the few remaining urban Jewish communities in the U.S. It is a community in every sense. A place where you know everyone, and everyone knows everything about you.
In my public high school, I studied Russian during the optimism of glasnost and perestroika. The Soviet Union collapsed and we thought we had reached the end of history. My junior year of college, I was studying in Moscow when Russia’s brutal suppression of Chechnya began. Despite being a student of the former Soviet Union, I’d never heard of Chechnya. I had no idea there were so many Muslims living in this space. Their history was erased from our curriculum. We studied Pushkin, Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible, but not Grozny.
Universities will never be able to solve the world’s problems unless we see those with divergent perspectives as human first and worthy of respect and care.
Not sure what to do with myself, I applied for the Peace Corps after college. When the recruiter saw I spoke Russian, she offered a posting in the former Soviet Union. I suggested Central Asia. She was elated: “We just started sending volunteers there and no one wants to go.”
I landed in a mahalla (neighborhood) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. It reminded me of Squirrel Hill. Everyone knew each other and watched out for one another. So, too, did the state, which clung to its Soviet-style authoritarianism. I watched the state co-opt the mahallas and spy on people. So real mahalla business dissimulated underground.
In the 1990s, Central Asian Muslims emerged from the fog of Soviet rule and were figuring out their religious identity. During those five years in Central Asia, I never encountered hostility based on my Jewish identity. There was an indigenous Bukharan Jewish community in Samarkand. Most left for Israel or New York just as I arrived. Unlike the Jews of the Middle East, they were not forced out. They were refuseniks and could not leave. Jews and Muslims shared a history of state persecution. The divisive politics of the Middle East was not their politics—they belonged to someone else.
After a political uprising in Uzbekistan, Americans were blamed for spreading colored revolutions. I was no longer welcome, so I spent many years in neighboring Afghanistan to write my doctoral dissertation. The social fabric was similar; Afghans also lived in mahallas. I spent years studying the way communities governed themselves through tradition and custom. Rather than disappearing during decades of war, these community structures kept society together. They continued to do so during the anti-Taliban insurgency.
After finishing grad school, I hit the lottery and landed a dream job at the University of Pittsburgh. It’s so rare for academics to be able to go home. I had four kids while chasing tenure. It was made joyful because I was surrounded by the love of my Squirrel Hill mahalla.
The 2018 massacre at Tree of Life shattered my sense of safety and forced our community to confront an ugly antisemitism. I lost dear neighbors and lifetime friends that day. We were so distraught and sought easy answers. Some focused their gaze on gun violence or President Trump as the source of our pain. I saw something different: a hatred that was endemic.
After Hamas attacked Israel in October, I was not surprised to see antisemitism unleashed without shame. We saw so many campuses disintegrate into vile hatred. Tree of Life, a place of safety and my youth, had already been destroyed, and I did not want yet another sacred space in my community—my university—defiled.
After the shooting at Tree of Life, it was my Muslim friends and the Muslim community that provided us comfort. They knew this hatred and dehumanization well—having seen it rear its head after 9/11. Pittsburgh’s Muslims paid for the funerals of those who perished. In the days after the shooting, thousands gathered on the lawn in front of Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning standing united against hatred.
In the somber days after Oct. 7, I ran into my cherished colleague and dear friend Soudi in the hallway. He reminded me how our campus came together after Tree of Life. With the brightest and most reassuring smile on his face, he said we must try to remind people of our shared humanity.
My understanding of compassion was influenced by the wisdom and nurturing care of my parents, who raised nine children in a modest village in Morocco. Journeying back through space and time to this village, I am reminded of the incredible sense of community there. No undertaking was ever a solitary experience; instead, it was a celebration of unity and cooperation.
Sadly, in our modern, fast-paced world, such opportunities for emotional and social support often elude us. My village, Ouled Alioua, lacked basic amenities such as water, electricity, health care, digital libraries, and the internet. We found ways to overcome these limitations by fostering a strong sense of community and relying on social and religious support structures.
My mother, a community giant, created an environment for women to gather even in simple spaces like under the shade of a tree or around the village well. Several intimate gatherings like this offered solace, shared wisdom, and compassionate listening.
My father was a remarkable individual, embodying gratitude and honor. He risked everything to liberate Europe during WWII and free the world from the horrors of the Nazis. Despite limited means, he worked to nurture a sense of security and trust within our household. His day began and ended with prayers, seeking God’s protection and provision for his family.
I attended Quranic school and learned that the Quran and the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) emphasize compassion, kindness, and mercy as essential aspects of Islam, encouraging Muslims to embody these qualities in their dealings with others. There I was taught that all people are created from a common origin and are divided into different nations and tribes to promote mutual understanding, not to foster division.
Amid rising global antisemitism and Islamophobia, it’s crucial to recognize instances of inclusive leadership. King Mohammed V of Morocco, known for the country’s history of tolerance, exemplified this during WWII. While the Vichy government collaborated with Nazi Germany and enforced antisemitic laws in French-occupied Morocco, King Mohammed V rejected distinctions among his people and worked to safeguard the Jewish population under his authority.
My journey from Morocco to Pittsburgh, the city of bridges, has been a complex and challenging one, but a journey that opened collaboration opportunities and the ability to work with some of the smartest and caring people like my friend Jen, who is not just a colleague but also a very dear and caring friend.
We are prepared to invest anything to protect our vulnerable communities—especially students. As an African, Moroccan, Muslim immigrant living in southwestern Pennsylvania in the post-9/11 era, my path has not always been smooth, as I have faced various forms of discrimination. These experiences further empower me to create an engaged community to help people meet people, not stereotypes, and to challenge this idea of putting up with each other, instead pushing it further: to engaging with each other.
I hold a strong belief that Pittsburgh is a city full of love and potential. I lived for eight years in the beautiful and peaceful neighborhood of Squirrel Hill not far from Tree of Life. After the shooting there—a senseless act of hatred—our university and community came together to organize an event, Pitt Stronger than Hate, on Nov. 5, 2018. We responded with strength, compassion, and unwavering support for one another.
I am a humanities professor at Pitt. The humanities are centered around teaching students skills like critical thinking, collaboration, empathy, and diversity and exposing them to diverse crossdisciplinary opportunities to be able to collaborate with others. They provide us with the tools to delve deeply into the human experience and foster empathy by exploring diverse perspectives. Humanities play a formative role in nurturing compassion, as they encourage us to connect on a deeper level with the stories and experiences of others.
Soudi and Jen
Over the past three months, we have held two of these events focused on compassion at Pitt. We have reached around 150 people in these gatherings. We have been heartened by the response. Individuals who initially met at the inaugural forum have since formed their own smaller gatherings to ensure that the message lives on. These include a Jewish studies professor, a Muslim community leader, and a Christian leader who met at our first event and now regularly meet for coffee. They attended the second event together, sitting at one table, eager to work with us to spread this message.
The discussions illuminated a shared aspiration among attendees to perpetuate this meaningful dialogue, underscoring the need for a dedicated space that facilitates their continued coming together. Some participants have taken the initiative to work with us to launch a grassroots project with the primary goal of promoting compassion and fostering a deeper understanding among community members in Pittsburgh.
Our efforts seemed to have made a difference at Pitt. According to a Brandeis University report on campus antisemitism released late last year, the University of Pittsburgh ranked below average in terms of antisemitic activity. Students at Pitt have expressed that most feel relatively safe on campus. Just steps away, the outcome at Carnegie Mellon University has been different. The campus is the site of regular pro-Palestinian rallies featuring rhetoric that has made Jewish students feel unsafe. One of the largest protests was held on the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht, which was hurtful to many Jewish students. A graduate student recently sued CMU for “pervasive anti-Jewish discrimination.”
Many people have asked us why our university did not disintegrate into chaos—like so many others—after Oct. 7. The students, faculty, and staff at the University of Pittsburgh are tied closely to the community. So many of us were touched by what happened at Tree of Life. The shadow of this tragedy—of this hatred—looms large. We suspect passions are tempered because people know just how high the stakes are here in Pittsburgh. We experienced the painful, ugly reality of dehumanization just footsteps from our campus.
Universities are wracked with debates over the role of freedom of expression. But what is missing from these conversations is any discussion about civil discourse. Universities will never be able to solve the world’s problems unless we see those with divergent perspectives as human first and worthy of respect and care. Scientific advancement is not possible if we all see the world the same way. Participants walk away from our events with a reminder that the diversity of viewpoints that we hold is not only critical, but vital for our universities to thrive. We do not want people to walk away with one worldview, but instead we seek that they have the confidence and compassion to deal with those who disagree.
We will continue these convenings over the next months, bringing our message beyond the confines of a college campus and into the broader community. In January, at the invitation of Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh, we will be holding a similar event with leaders of Christian and Muslim communities.
We are also aware that these kinds of crises are not going away. As our societies are increasingly polarized, we will need more work like this to help us navigate these differences. We plan to create a class at Pitt open to students and faculty around the country, which will teach students the vital tools of civil discourse so that they can be better citizens and foster compassion. We dream of establishing a Compassion Response Team that can bring people together when future crises emerge. This inclusive approach will foster compassion within our university and the broader community as it confronts tragedy and division. This work can ensure that our universities continue to be beacons of democracy. What we are building at Pitt now isn’t just a model for today, but a blueprint for tackling future crises. Our focus is each other and our shared humanity.
Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili (Uzbekistan 1997-99) is the founding director of the Center for Governance and Markets and professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.
Abdesalam Soudi is a sociolinguist, humanities professor at Pitt, mentor, and innovator dedicated to fostering meaningful connections.