The Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Pittsburgh welcomed Erica Brown to its annual Fall Foundation Brunch on Sunday, Sept. 22, at Rodef Shalom Congregation.
Rabbi Danny Schiff interviewed Brown in a wide-ranging conversation that touched on the aftermath of the Oct. 27 attack, the High Holidays and Jewish leadership, among other topics.
Brown is an associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development and the director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. She is the author of 12 books on leadership, the Hebrew Bible and spirituality; serves as a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation; and is an Avi Chai Fellow.
The brunch, according to Jewish Community Foundation Director Daniel Brandeis, acts as the Foundation’s annual meeting and serves as both a way to update the public about the Foundation’s work and as “a wonderful opportunity for those that support the Foundation to get together in a social environment.”
That work was highlighted during introductory speeches by Brandeis and Foundation Chair Woody Ostrow.
Brandeis pointed out that the Foundation is composed of more than 1,400 individual funds with assets totaling more than $260 million.
Special note was given to the Harold Grinspoon Foundation Life & Legacy program begun in 2018. This four-year program offers resources and mentoring to local synagogues and organizations to promote posthumous giving by their members. In the first year, 14 Pittsburgh organizations participated and, as the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh Director of Marketing Adam Hertzman explained, the program recently added five more cohorts.
Federation CEO and President Jeff Finkelstein presented Sandy and Larry Rosen with the 2019 Gift of Consequence Award.
The award, according to Hertzman, “recognized people who hold funds” in the Foundation and, “through planned giving and volunteer endeavors, demonstrate an outstanding commitment to the enduring strength and vitality of the Jewish community. “
Following the presentation, Schiff began his conversation with Brown noting that she had previously spoken in Pittsburgh at an event marking the shloshim of the 11 victims murdered at the Oct. 27 Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha building massacre. It was then that Schiff asked Brown to come back to the city.
“Thirty days after the attack,” said Schiff, “we were in the deepest depths of mourning. Now we are at the first year commemoration. How do we remember but not be defined by that event?”
Brown recounted that in some Jewish traditions, at the end of observing shiva, mourners will sometimes walk around the block alone to “symbolically re-enter the world.”
“We do move on,” she explained, saying it is important that we ask ourselves if mourning is the sum total of who we are. To illustrate this point, Brown said Jews under 40 aren’t defined by the Holocaust. “They aren’t interested in a legacy of sadness.”
Schiff shifted the conversation to Jewish leadership and the recent Israeli election.
“Jews believe in succession,” Brown claimed. “Abraham was succeeded by Isaac … Moses had Joshua … ” Trust was important to that succession, she explained, and continues to be so with our leaders today.
“We’ve taken nobility out of leadership … If we tell our children not to be president, we’ve created pathways to no possibilities.” Judaism values involvement, Brown said. “We need to tell our children, ‘Your job is to be involved and to lead.’”
A theme of future renewal continued as Schiff asked about the acts of disgraced Jews like Jeffrey Epstein. Brown pointed out that this was the consequence of peoplehood and that we can’t eliminate bad acts. It’s our future actions that matter, she explained. “I want to go back to being the light.”
The conversation concluded with thoughts on the High Holidays. Schiff asked Brown what should be said to people who don’t want to go to services because of boredom.
Boredom has a purpose, Brown said. “Tradition joins me to the congregants near me, to the congregants before me and those that come after me. I see vulnerability attached to everyone. We all have something to pray for, even if the words of the liturgy don’t move us. I think we all need to be trapped in ourselves a little bit.”
Reflecting on the upcoming year, Brown said she hoped for “the blessing to be patient, to not stand on the sidelines of history. To sustain the belief that good will overcome, that trust is possible, that happiness is likely.”
Brunch attendee Tanya Koul Strausbaugh found Brown’s talk engaging, “especially her thoughtful discussion of our role in promoting leadership to the next generation.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at drullo@