It will be a beautiful day in Rodef Shalom’s neighborhood on June 22.
That’s when the congregation will honor the late Fred Rogers, host of the landmark children’s television series, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” with the 2014 Pursuer of Peace Award, an biannual honor the congregation bestows upon an individual from the Greater Pittsburgh community whose work and commitment contributes to the pursuit of peace through interfaith understanding and humanitarianism.
Rodef Shalom means “pursuer of peace” in Hebrew.
Rogers will become the third recipient of the award since it was first presented in 2010, and the first to receive it posthumously. He joins Bishop David Zubik of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and Bill Strickland, president and CEO of the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, as honorees.
The late Presbyterian minister and television celebrity is being recognized for his “life’s work on behalf of the emotional well-being of children,” according to a prepared statement.
“When we started this, we never intended it to honor people posthumously,” Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom said. “In this case, the presentation will be different. It will be a wonderful presentation; everyone should mark their calendars.”
Bill Isler, president of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College, remarked on how enduring Rogers’ legacy is, even though his show went off the air in 2001 after 33 years.
“I think we’re all amazed at the lasting impact he’s had. It’s been 11 years this month [since his death]. That’s a long time in a society based on instantaneous gratification. … It really says something.”
Typically, the honoree, in accepting the award, delivers the Pursuer of Peace address from the bima of the main sanctuary. He (or she) also directs which cause or program shall receive a financial contribution from the congregation.
In this case, Rogers’ widow, Joanne, will accept the award for her husband, and the congregation will direct this year’s contribution, which will be split between the Circle Camps for Grieving Children and Quest Therapeutic Camps.
The idea for honoring Rogers took root in … an airport.
Specifically, it happened less than a year ago at LaGuardia Airport in New York where Bisno and Isler were booked on the same flight to Pittsburgh. Typically, though, their departure was delayed by about 90 minutes.
“We were just talking and talking and at some point in time he [Bisno] said, ‘I have an idea and do you think it’s possible?’” Isler recalled. “I said I’d talk to Joanne Rogers and see what she thinks, and she, too, thought it was a great idea.”
The congregation offered to let the Fred Rogers Center decide where the contribution should go, but it declined.
“I just thought it would be better if the congregation would make the decision, and so did Joanne,” Isler said. “We thought, after talking to members of our board here, that Rodef Shalom should make the decision where the money goes; we’re just honored that Fred is being honored.”
Bisno said Roger’s life and work exemplified the term, “pursuer of peace.”
“When you hear his words, there is the most beautiful expression of peace,” he said.
“Fred Rogers speaks directly to each of us. There’s a saying in the Talmud: ‘Words from the heart go to the heart.’ And Mister Rogers spoke to our hearts.
“Most of us tend to think of peace as the balance with violence, war,” Bisno continued. “Judaism asks, ‘who is strong?’ And the answer our rabbis give is, ‘the one who is a master of his or her own passions or emotions.’ We can know ourselves well enough, control ourselves; that’s the Jewish idea of what human beings can be.”
Circle Camps were created shortly after the 9/11 attacks to offer a safe, nurturing and normal camp environment for girls who lost a parent. A Circle Camp will open this summer at JCC’s Emma Kaufmann Camp in Morgantown, W.Va.
Quest Camp, which is operated locally by the Jewish Family & Children’s Service, helps children improve their behavioral, emotional and social functions.
The amount of the contribution has not yet been determined.
“It should be in keeping with children,” Rodef Shalom President Ann Roth said of the recipients of this year’s contribution. “It should be in keeping with Fred Rogers’ philosophy of helping each other and ‘I like you just the way you are’ .… These two camps help kids in that Fred Rogers way.”
Since the camps also partner with other Pittsburgh Jewish agencies, Roth said the decision also complies with the congregation’s five-year plan to partner more with Jewish Pittsburgh.
The June 22 program is open to the entire community.
Rodef Shalom is located across the street from WQED, the Pittsburgh public television station that produced “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” for years — a coincidence not lost on Bisno.
In fact, the rabbi said he has a cardigan sweater and loafers in his study and likes to wear them on cold or rainy days. The trademark introduction to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” always showed Rogers walking into his house, singing “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” as he donned his own cardigan sweater and slipped into his loafers.
“Every time I [put them on],” Bisno said, “I think of Mr. Rogers and how privileged I feel to be a part of this neighborhood and to have the opportunity to feel neighborly. And that’s what it means to pursue peace.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)