When Pastor Donald Green looks back on his career, one of the highlights will be the times he brought Jewish and Christian leaders together on one of the most contentious subjects dividing them: the Middle East.
The 67-year-old Lutheran minister performed that role many times in his 11-year stint as executive director of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, an ecumenical umbrella group representing more than 1 million Christians from 10 counties.
He will retire from that position on March 31.
In his time at Christian Associates, Green played a pivotal role in mediating between Jews and Christians who didn’t always see eye-to-eye on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sometimes bringing together religious leaders who never before sat across a table from one another.
“It’s been a joyous journey, even in times of crisis,” Green told the Chronicle in an interview at his Lawrenceville office. “Joyous in a sense of fulfilling, that in some small way I have had a hand in healing the breach.”
He’s not the only one who feels that way.
“Don Green is a very good friend to the Jewish community,” said Jeffrey Cohan, past director of the Community Relations Council (CRC) of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “What made him such a good friend to our community was the bridge building and mediating he did between our community and liberal Protestant denominations.”
Cohan and Green traveled to Israel together in 2006 with the Christian-Jewish mission organized by Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the two worked closely together on several fronts thereafter.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say he played an indispensible role in keeping interfaith relations in Pittsburgh on a very civil and respectful level,” Cohan said.
It’s not a role that came naturally to Green. Growing up in York, central Pennsylvania, he said he had few Jewish contacts as a boy and later as a young pastor.
“I must say, before I came to Pittsburgh I didn’t have a lot of interactive engagement with the Jewish community,” he said. That skill, he noted, would “evolve” over his 40-year ministry.
The evolution began in earnest in 1992 when, after 18 years as a pastor in Hershey and Lancaster, he came to Pittsburgh to serve as assistant to the bishop of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
In that capacity, Green began to engage in interfaith work.
The work yielded results in 1996, after the Lutheran Church issued a historic statement renouncing Martin Luther’s condemnation of the Jews, when Green organized an important meeting of Lutherans and rabbis at Shaare Torah Congregation “to discuss the document and begin building a relationship between Lutherans and Jews,” he said.
By the time he moved on to Christian Associates in 2002, he had become “sensitized” to the work of interfaith relations.
“I found early on I could play a role as convener, mediator and facilitator — especially if there were issues between Christians and Jews related to Middle East peace,” Green said.
Nowhere was that more true than in relations between Jews and Presbyterians over divestment from entities doing business with Israel. Green facilitated a meeting between Jewish leaders and the Presbyterian Church (USA) following the church’s 2004 General Assembly decision to begin a “phased, selective” divestment from Israel. The decision was reversed at the church’s 2006 General Assembly.
It was the first time some Presbyterian leaders had even sat across a table from Jewish leaders, Green recalled. He would act as a respected intermediary many more times between the two faiths.
“When people ask me what I do,” he quipped, “I say I’m an ecclesiastical bureaucrat and an ecumenical and interreligious diplomat.”
Sometimes, his interfaith work involved his own denomination, such as in 2010 when the Lutheran World Federation elected Munib Younan, bishop of Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land — a tiny segment of the LWF.
As a result of Younan’s election, Green brought Lutherans and Jews together locally three times to promote dialogue:
• First in 2010, on behalf of the Bishop of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod, to explain the significance of Younan’s election;
• Second in February 2013, in advance of the Churchwide Assembly for the ELCA in Pittsburgh, for a discussion between voting members and CRC leaders; and
• A luncheon at the Assembly itself where Jewish leaders had an opportunity to meet Younan.
The luncheon went “superbly well,” Green recalled.
“It got to the point where Rabbi Berkun and Bishop Younan were exchanging jokes to one another as they related their experiences with Middle East issues,” he said.
The list of Jewish Pittsburgh leaders Green said he’s worked with over the years reads like a who’s who: Rabbis Jamie Gibson, Alvin Berkun, Daniel Wasserman, Walter Jacob, and lay leaders such as the late Barbara Shore, Barbara Burstin, Gregg Roman and Skip Grinberg (just to name a few).
And in a tangible demonstration of respect local Jews have for Green, many have donated to the new Pastor Don Green Program Fund, which Christian Associates will use to expand its program offerings. The original goal was $50,000. As of this week, it has exceeded $78,000.
Green called that support “humbling.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)