"My role as a social activist did not come easily to me. I come from a very conservative family," Tammie Schnitzer told Freedom Writer. "Growing up I assumed that everyone's struggles were the same, and these issues did not affect me. It hit me when I had to walk in someone's else's shoes."
A quiet mother of two from Billings, Montana, Tammie has been making headlines for her work on human rights issues. Past president of the Billings Coalition of Human Rights and board member of the Montana Human Rights Network, she is also on the U.S. Comm ission for Civil Rights. Her interest in human rights was sparked by antisemitism directed at her own family, but she identifies with, supports and defends the concerns of other minority groups as well.
Having converted from Lutheranism to Judaism before marriage to her husband, Brian, Tammie quickly discovered that to be Jewish was to be different.
There are only about a thousand Jews in the state of Montana. Acts of hatred directed at the Jewish community were quietly cleaned up, and viewed as an embarrassment. Congregation phone lists were kept confidential and delivered door-to-door and not throu gh the mail. It was not uncommon for the synagogue to hire armed guards for its services.
"I thought this was very bizarre. My Christian community didn't have to live like this," remembered Tammie. When she questioned why no one used incidents of hatred as a platform to speak out, she was told to leave well enough alone. "They were embarrassed ," she said, "but they were ingrained that this was OK. Compared to what? Compared to 50 years ago?"
She soon found out why they were so cautious. When Tammie publicized a Jewish educational event in the newspaper, she received a death threat. Only 15 minutes after the phone call, the side window in her mini-van was shot out with a bullet as she pulled o ut of her driveway. Shards of glass covered her 19 month- old son Isaac as he sat in his car seat. Fortunately, he was uninjured.
"I realized then that there were consequences for being different in this community," said Tammie. "You do not want to think that someone hates you so much, simply because you are different, that they are willing to harm you, or God forbid, your children. So you try not to think about that."
But Tammie did think about that. Over a thousand pounds of Ku Klux Klan literature was distributed within a two-block radius of their home. Patients in her husband's medical practice were sent an antisemitic letter. Their synagogue services were plagued b y so many bomb threats that they drew up an official policy for handling them.
Then the Jewish cemetery was desecrated. This was especially difficult for the Schnitzers, because Brian is the caretaker of the cemetery, and one of their children is buried there. "To know that somebody walked across your son's grave and purposely knock ed over his headstone, simply because of who his parents were, is terrifying," said Tammie. "It's an attack on the most vulnerable members of a community."
In 1993, someone threw a brick through her son Isaac's bedroom window, where he had displayed his Hanukkah menorah. The glass was shattered and his menorah was broken. One of Isaac's Christian friends gave him a drawing of a thirteen-branch menorah (Hanuk kah menorahs have only nine branches) to decorate his window. "If that was the only act, that would have been enough," recalled Tammie. But it wasn't the only one.
The story of Isaac's broken menorah was told under the newspaper headline, "But how do you explain that to a child?" Drawing on the story of the Danish king who led his people to don yellow stars to protect Jews from the Nazis, the newspaper editorialized that the people of Billings needed to take a stand against hatred in their own community. The paper printed a full-page menorah. By the end of December, over 10,000 people in Billings had put menorahs in their windows.
Billings drew together to oppose hatred against others in their community and began talking more about human rights. And the community awareness of racism led to a halt of white supremacist activity in Billings. In essence, the community stood up and said , "We don't want it here anymore!" As a result, today Billings is a better place to live.
"This can't be a slotted issue," Tammie said. "It's not a Jewish issue or a gay and lesbian issue, or an ethnic issue. These are human rights issues."
"Until we own up to our own racism — and we all have it — until we recognize it, we're not going to be able to chip away at the big stuff," she added. "I'm talking about the people in power; I'm talking about myself and I'm talking about you. That's what the real issue is; we have to face our own racism."
The story of how Billings stood up to hatred and declared, "Not in Our Town," was featured in a PBS special. Their story was so powerful that other communities began imitating Billings. A second hour-long documentary, showcasing efforts in other communiti es was produced.
When asked what advice she would give other activists, Tammie said, "If you're an activist you should be an activist to the core, and realize that you won't make a lot of friends." An "activist mother," she says that the integration of activism with a per sonal life is important and very hard to do.
"The risk to me is lying in bed at night and crying because you've lost a friend over an issue," she said. Her energy and motivation for activism is fueled by her desire to carve out a place for her children. "It's worth it because you are setting an exam ple for your children, and that's the legacy you are going to give them."
"Getting good people to do good things is really hard to do," observed Tammie. "You have to groom a community to make that happen, and work together. This issue was never really a Jewish issue. It was a human rights issue. All human beings deserve a decen t quality of life. I am one of a million voices out there."