Pittsburgh native Susan Friedberg Kalson has been selected as the next chair of the Commission on Social Action, a joint body of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union for Reform Judaism. Her four-year term begins in December.
Kalson is the chief executive officer of the Squirrel Hill Health Center. The center, according to Kalson, provides “health services regardless of insurance status or ability to pay. It’s primarily medical, behavioral and dental health care with a lot of care coordination.”
The community leader believes it is important to “make a difference in the world.” She has sought opportunities that have allowed her to weave together her professional and faith-based volunteer life and work toward that goal.
From 2004-’06 she served as the president of Rodef Shalom Congregation. Kalson has also worked with the Community Relations Council and serves on the advisory board of the Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement.
After her tenure at Rodef Shalom, Kalson was appointed to the URJ North American Board and was elected to its Oversight Committee in 2015. She has served three times as chair of the URJ Biennial Resolutions committee, helping to shape policy positions that guide the movement’s social justice priorities.
Kalson pointed out that the work of the CSA and the Religious Action Center brings the vision of Reform Judaism to issues of social justice.
“Social action and social justice have always been an integral part of Reform Judaism and the Reform movement, particularly in this country, starting in the mid-20th century. It is part and parcel with the way we define Judaism and the work we are obliged to do as Jews.”
While discussing the priorities for her leadership, Kalson described a covenant created by the CSA and RAC called the Brit Olam. According to the RAC website, the Brit strives “to create a world in which all people experience wholeness, justice and compassion.”
The broad areas of concentration, according to Kalson, include “gun violence, racial justice, which includes how we look at our own internal communities and the way we look at diversity in our movement and the Jewish world, women’s health rights, immigrant and refugee justice and environmental justice.”
Congregations signed the Brit Olam agreeing to create cohorts and work for social justice. The CSA, Kalson explained “is creating a framework in which congregation can chose one or more of these issues and dive into them.”
“I’m looking forward to continuing that and structuring it to push it out more broadly.”
CSA Director and RAC Associate Director Barbara Weinstein agreed. She reiterated that the “period of robust implementation of these five pillars will be under Susan’s watch. She will also take the lead in helping us to figure out what our civic engagement plan will look like for the 2020 election cycle.”
Weinstein pointed to Kalson’s time as a vice chair of the commission: “Susan used her deep knowledge of public health to shape our response to the opioid crisis. She helped implement our civic engagement campaign in the last election cycle and has been a strong voice for social justice on the URJ board. At a time when the world cries out for ever more justice, she is the leader our movement needs.”
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center, echoed Weinstein’s comments. “Susan is widely respected across the Reform movement and CSA, URJ and RAC leadership. She has been a distinguished lay leader for us and has been so passionate in her work for social justice, both in Pittsburgh and on a national level. With Susan at the helm, I know we will continue to strengthen our congregations’ vital work of advancing immigration justice, racial justice, gun violence prevention, climate justice, reproductive justice and more.”
Asked to reflect on how Pittsburgh will influence her time as chair, Kalson said, “I was already very involved in (URJ) leadership but because of my role and the fact that I was from Squirrel Hill and grew up here and that Richard Gottfried, one of the dentists at the Squirrel Hill Health Center, was murdered at New Light on that terrible day, people ask me to share my thoughts. I embrace this opportunity to effect real change.
“We have an obligation both to protect ourselves and in doing so protect others. When we align with people of color, immigrants, Muslims, Sikhs, other vulnerable communities, we aren’t only strengthening them, we are strengthening ourselves. That’s part of the perspective I bring to the position.
“Pittsburgh is a remarkable place. We’ve always been a place that Jews are interconnected in a way that isn’t necessarily true in other cities. In some ways, the world saw us as we truly were on those days (after the shooting). I certainly see Oct. 27 as a mandate to keep trying to do good and I’m really driven by that.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at drullo@