Local civic leaders discuss faith and politics

Local civic leaders discuss faith and politics

Rabbi Danny Schiff led local politicians in a discussion about “motivations and aspirations,” and not about “politics directly.”
Photo by Jim Busis
Rabbi Danny Schiff led local politicians in a discussion about “motivations and aspirations,” and not about “politics directly.” Photo by Jim Busis

Like loving but spatting spouses, church and state have a strange yet storied history. Three Pittsburgh politicians alluded to that murky relationship last week during a panel discussion titled, “Conversations that Count: Balancing Jewish Faith with Political Life.” The evening event was held at The Tower at PNC Plaza and supported by the Men’s Philanthropy Division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

Those exploring religion and civic leadership included state Rep. Dan Frankel and Pittsburgh City Council members Dan Gilman and Corey O’Connor. Rabbi Danny Schiff, Jewish Community Foundation Scholar, moderated the discussion and introduced the program by explaining, “Tonight is really not about politics. We want to have a conversation about motivations and aspirations and not about politics directly.”  

For nearly an hour, Schiff proposed topics allowing local leaders to muse on upbringings, values and strength of community.

An initial inquiry broached the group’s background.

“My path to politics was right through the Jewish community,” said Frankel.

After noting that his sister lives in Israel and that his father chaired the Hebrew Institute, Frankel added, “I’ve always felt that the Jewish Federation and its agencies were the best way to get involved in our community.”

Gilman, who grew up in a “Conservative Jewish household,” explained that he entered politics after exposure to student government as a Carnegie Mellon University undergraduate.

Because of my family, “I’m open-minded to all religions,” said O’Connor, whose mother is Jewish and father, the late Mayor Bob O’Connor, was Catholic. “Many years ago [such a union] was frowned upon. My parents had to elope to West Virginia to get married.”

Pushing past family histories, Schiff pursued the role of Jewish values in leadership.

“Justice, justice you shall pursue” — the biblical verse from Deuteronomy — “is my core value in legislative values and how I want to be seen in Harrisburg,” said Frankel.

“I was married in a Catholic church and attended Central Catholic, but apart from that, I feel like both religions have helped me lead,” said O’Connor before noting that “one of the big things when I look at a piece of legislation is respect.”

“The values I hold in government as a pragmatic progressive are values that I hold as Jewish values,” noted Gilman. “We have a calling to take action in areas of social justice and equality, and to me, these are as fundamental a component of our shared faith as anything else.”

From there, Schiff delved further into the role of faith-based decisions.

“Every decision I make has an ethical and moral foundation that was instilled in me by my family and Judaism,” said Gilman.

But how does one explain members of the same faith supporting alternative political parties? Could those with the same religious beliefs really reach such different conclusions, asked Schiff?

Frankel pointed to his own workings across the aisle, yet cautioned: “Through our values and through our faith we need to find more common ground. We need to find a way to bring our values to the table without alienating the other.”

“Politicians use faith when it’s convenient and walk away when it’s not,” Gilman said. “You see it with abortion, but not with love thy neighbor, which is a universally held belief.”

All of us “believe in three or four core values, whether Democrat or Republican,” added O’Connor. “You have these values, you just show it in a different way.”

Apart from holding certain values, what advice could you offer to those interested in elected office, asked Schiff?

“Marry well; you can’t do this [kind of work] without a supportive spouse or supportive children,” said Frankel.

You have to have “caring, love and passion to help others,” said O’Connor.

“If you don’t think you are the very best person [for this position], then don’t run,” added Gilman.

“This was an honest and frank conversation about what motivates,” said Schiff of the discussion.

The focus on faith, not politics, “is something that doesn’t get talked about,” explained attendee Jake Ford, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh.

Scott Leib, a fellow attendee, agreed.

“It was very informative to hear from leaders in our community and how Judaism helps to influence and motivate them,” he said.

Adam Reinherz can be reached at adamr@thejewishchronicle.net

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