Born in tiny Miles City, Mont., and raised as a Lutheran in Billings, just a two-hour drive down Route I-94, Tammie Schnitzer never imagined that she would become famous as a Jewish woman who stood up to hate and galvanized the support of an entire town in the process.
On Sunday, Sept. 21, Schnitzer will tell her story at the Greenbriar at Whittingham Town Centre in Monroe Township. The event, sponsored by Hadassah Associates of Monroe, is expected to attract an audience in the hundreds, including Rep. Rush Holt (D-Dist. 12), State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Dist. 14), and township Mayor Richard Pucci and council president Gerald Tamburro.
Manny Strumpf and Al Pressler, event committee cochairs, said that Schnitzer will appear without a fee because of her commitment to what she calls “social justice.”
In December 1993, Schnitzer and her five-year-old son Isaac were targets of a bias crime when someone hurled a brick through the boy’s bedroom window, where he had placed a Hanukka menora.
“Instead of shrinking into a corner, I decided to fight back,” Schnitzer told NJJN in a phone interview.
Friends and neighbors rallied around. A non-Jewish girl named Rebecca, one of Isaac’s classmates, came over with her mother. “She had hand-drawn a 13-candle menora and also brought some tape so that we could paste it over the smashed window,” said Schnitzer.
Schnitzer approached the editors of The Billings Gazette, the local paper. Within a few days, the Gazette published a full-page image of a hanukkia — with the requisite nine branches — along with a message urging readers to display the image in their windows as a symbol of their “determination to live together in harmony.”
By the following morning, Schnitzer said, 10,000 people in Billings had displayed the menoras.
“Isaac asked me, ‘Is everyone Jewish?’ I answered, ‘No, they are all different religions. But they’re here to let you know that there are 10,000 pairs of arms wrapping themselves around you saying it’s safe to say, ‘I’m Isaac Schnitzer, a Jew.’”
In the years prior to the brick-throwing, the town had experienced numerous incidents of intolerance, which, Schnitzer said, appeared to be financed and instigated from outside Montana. The show of solidarity began to turn things around. The motto “Not in our town” caught on. The town’s police chief and other local officials became vocal supporters, and eventually the troublemakers either quieted or went away, said Schnitzer.
The Billings story was told in a 30-minute documentary film aired on PBS in 1995. Its coproducer formed a group called Not in Our Town (niot.org) that sends professionals and trained volunteers to assist other communities in preventing and combating hate crimes.
Schnitzer, who had converted to Judaism in her 20s, was appointed president of the Billings Coalition on Civil Rights. She also has served as a director of the Montana State Human Rights Network, and President Bill Clinton appointed her to the U.S. Advisory Commission on Civil Rights.
Schnitzer, who works as a dental assistant, moved away from Billings in 2000 and now lives in South Carolina.
“I believe hate crime should be seen as a social issue, not a victim issue,” said Schnitzer. “In order to have social justice, you must have social activism. Sometimes social activism can be as simple as bringing over a piece of tape to place a picture in the window.”