When Rabbi Ron Symons and the Rev. Liddy Barlow decided to co-host a program protesting racism and bigotry in the wake of the Charlottesville riots, they hoped that maybe 30 interfaith clergy members would show up and perhaps an additional 20 might sign on to a declaration to the community accentuating their unity in the face of hatred and discrimination.
Instead, more than 100 clergy and other community members assembled Monday afternoon at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill, and 169 people signed on to the declaration.
The interfaith gathering was the inaugural program of a new initiative of the JCC called the Center for Loving Kindness and Civil Engagement, headed by Symons, and was held in collaboration with the Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, an umbrella group for a variety of Christian denominations, of which Barlow serves as executive minister.
The event united clergy from many streams of Christianity, along with representatives from the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and local rabbis and cantors from Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations. The program marked the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.
“We are living in very challenging times,” said Symons, the JCC’s senior director of Jewish life, reading from a joint statement signed also by Barlow. “Protesters, advocates and politicians are trying to spin our moral compasses in such a way so that we have little sense of which way to step. But we know in which direction we should march: the moral direction that is taught by all of our faith traditions, the direction of ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ and ‘do not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds.’ Our fathers and mothers marched in this direction, and so must we, so that our children will in their day and so that we can create a world where hate, bigotry, racism and discrimination have no place in society, no matter the voice speaking them nor the unspoken words of those in power.”
In addition to an audio excerpt of the Rev. Marin Luther King Jr.’s address delivered at the March on Washington, the crowd also heard an excerpt of a 1903 sermon by Rodef Shalom’s Rabbi Leonard Levy, read by that congregation’s current senior rabbi, Aaron Bisno, and part of the final sermon of Muhammed read by Imam Abdul Wajid.
Following the readings of the excerpted sermons, the clergy members marched together singing “We Will Overcome,” to address community members assembled at the entrance to the JCC on Forbes Avenue.
The JCC’s Center of Loving Kindness and Civil Engagement has been in the works for several months, with an intended launch this fall, according to Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of the JCC. The white supremist rally in Charlottesville, and its aftermath, however, created an “impetus” to act sooner, he said.
While the Center for Loving Kindness and Civil Engagement is a new initiative, “in many ways, it’s actually an affirmation of what we’ve already been doing at the JCC, but not really in the context of a center,” said Schreiber.
JCCs, in their earliest incarnations, “were designed to teach immigrants how to be good American citizens,” Schreiber continued, noting that the Pittsburgh JCC has been offering citizenship classes for immigrants for the last 25 years, as well as holding various public forums.
“The impetus in the last year, year and a half is there is a lot of talk around what we would call ‘civil engagement’ in a very partisan world,” he explained. “Just the idea of civic engagement is challenged in very different way, with heavier partisanship. And this may be an opportunity to really think about going back to some of that civic engagement strategy and the idea of actually being a place of public discourse in a much more pronounced way, in a much more intentional way than what’s been happening.”
Now, Schreiber said, the JCC has an ability to “build an intentional experience around a Jewish lens using Ron’s [Symon’s] role and Ron’s work as part of this center, so it’s a piece around civic engagement, but within a Jewish values framework.”
Pittsburgh’s JCC was part of a “think tank” along with several other JCCs that convened in New York City about six months ago, around the time when JCCs across the country were routinely receiving bomb threats, to discuss civil engagement initiatives, according to Schreiber A few other JCCs, including Manhattan’s, are in the process of launching their own.
“JCC Manhattan is calling their initiative The Democracy Project,” Schreiber said. “Ours is a little different in scope, but from a similar premise.”
The goals of the Center for Loving Kindness and Civil Engagement are “to strengthen the fabric of community by amplifying ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ ‘do not sit idle while your neighbor bleeds,’ while redefining ‘neighbor’ from a geographic term to a moral concept,” explained Symons. The Center will focus on five program areas, including educating teens through adults to “help them better understand there are other people out there, in realization that there is no one who is ‘other,’” Symons said.
The new Center will also stress “advocacy and civil engagement.” “We want to use the pull of community organizing to bring people together just like today,” according to Symons, noting that the Center will be “nonpartisan.”
“But that does not mean we can’t take a stand on particular issues,” Schreiber clarified. “So, obviously, there is a hate crimes measure that might be going to the PA House of Representatives. We may ultimately take a position on that, but we understand that advocating for an issue is different than taking a political position on something.”
Other areas of focus of the Center will include “artistic expression,” which will make use of the American Jewish Museum housed at the JCC to feature relevant exhibits, and “communication” to share the Center’s message “widely through social media and the like to ensure that the conversation is about the community that we want to grow into,” Symons said.
The new JCC initiative is not intended to supplant the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council, which also works to build relationships within and beyond the Jewish community, according to Schreiber.
“We have a very close working relationship with the CRC,” he said. “I can’t imagine there are issues we would get involved in that are counter to what the CRC does. We do believe that as a community town square, which the Center plays, we have some unique abilities to coalesce community in a different way than we’ve been doing.”
The JCC is “very much a town square,” agreed Symons. “Not just for Squirrel Hill but for greater Pittsburgh at large. And in that town square, there needs to be deliberate conversations about the morals and the values about the way the community is going.”
An expansion in the JCC’s membership policy introduced by its board several months ago, “to include gender-identity expression,” Schreiber said, can be viewed as part of the mission of the Center for Loving Kindness.
“We see that [policy] as not standing by while our neighbor bleeds,” he said. “Now, we can’t help it if that issue becomes politicized or become partisan — that’s the part where it is going to be hard to tell where things evolve. But we really did that out of a sense to serve the community more inclusively.”
Although the JCC has expanded its membership policy to be intentionally inclusive of gender-identity expressions, threats against the LGBTQ community were not specifically included in the declaration against hate signed by the religious leaders on Monday, which did list anti-Semitism, white supremacy, Islamophobia and racism as “evil.”
The omission of the LGBTQ community was acknowledged by Barlow in an interview following the interfaith gathering.
“We wanted to make the broadest possible repudiation of bigotry that we could under the largest possible umbrella,” she said. “We focused on racial and religious prejudice recognizing that there are other forms of hatred in the world.”
Even those denominations that are not supportive of same-sex marriage, she said, would nonetheless “all unite in opposing hatred and violence in the LGBT community. But we wanted to cast a net large enough so that people would be eager to sign on.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at