In response to several recent identity-based hate-related incidents in Mt. Lebanon, state Rep. Dan Miller (D-District 42) organized a Unity Rally last Sunday to bring the community together to celebrate diversity and inclusiveness.
“The goal is to send a message that words and actions that attack people based on where they are from, whom they love, where they worship, the color of their skin, or whether they have a disability or not, do not represent the character of our community,” Miller said in a prepared statement.
Despite the bitter cold, the proximity of the event to the winter holidays and the fact that it began at 4:30 p.m. during the fourth quarter of “a pretty heated Steelers game,” Miller said, about 450 Mt. Lebanon citizens turned out to show their support for one another.
The rally was held outside the Mt. Lebanon Recreational Center, and drew a crowd comprised of adults, children, and people of various races and religious affiliations. Rabbis Mark Mahler of Temple Emanuel, Alex Greenbaum of Beth El Congregation and Mendy Rosenblum of Chabad of the South Hills were among the faces in the crowd that also included Rob Goodman, director of South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh.
Miller’s office worked with the Mt. Lebanon School District, the municipality and about 40 community partners to put the rally together in just 18 days, Miller said in an interview.
In light of recent hostile events, he said, he felt it was imperative for residents to come together.
“There were some anti-Semitic and racially motivated, identity-based actions that occurred,” Miller said. “Most of them were attributed to ignorance and stupidity rather than abject hatred.”
Miller declined to speak specifically about incidents that occurred in the Mt. Lebanon School District, but other media outlets reported a racial slur on a tackling dummy at the football field, and four small swastikas drawn on a girls’ bathroom windowsill.
“I won’t comment on the specific actions of middle school kids,” Miller said. “My goal is not to demonize some 11- or 12-year-old kids.”
Miller did refer to other incidents in the community, such as an assault on a man believed to be of Muslim heritage at the Red Robin Restaurant at South Hills Village in November, and the words “Go back to Mexico” being scrawled on a Mexican grocery store in Brookline a year ago.
Multiple families and individuals have come to Miller’s office to talk about other matters of bigotry and inclusion in recent months, he said, including the parents of a lesbian daughter who were concerned about “issues she was facing.”
The program commenced with a performance by the Nandanik Dance Troupe — showcasing dances from India — and the crowd heard from several speakers, including Temple Emanuel’s Mahler, Father Dave Bonnar from St. Bernard, Lana Shami, board member of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, Mary Birks, school board president, Kelly Fraasch, Mt. Lebanon commission president, and Sheila McCollum, president of the Black Association of the South Hills for Women. The program also included performances from the school district’s Chamber Choir.
The community joined together in singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
“What an inspiring sight, to see so many people here on this cold, blustery day to stand up for unity,” Bonnar told the crowd. “It just gives credence to the fact that we are Pittsburghers, and we are all about building bridges and crossing bridges.”
“I’m honored to represent the rabbinic community of Mt. Lebanon, and the Mt. Lebanon Jewish community all together,” Mahler began his address, in which he drew a parallel between the Unity Rally and last week’s Torah portion about Jacob and Esau.
“It is the perfect story to eliminate hate,” Mahler said, recounting the struggle between the two brothers and their ultimate reconciliation, with Jacob eventually telling Esau: “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
Mahler asked everyone in the crowd to turn to those by their side and to say those same words.
“When we turn love from hate we become one of God’s many faces,” Mahler said. “This is the world that God created us for. Where each one of us acts with love, not hate; with understanding, not fear. The world where each one of us lives as one of God’s many faces. Eliminate hate and make your face one of God’s faces.”
Despite being known for its award-winning schools and its excellent municipal services, Mt. Lebanon “has had its scars in the past,” Miller acknowledged in an interview. Those scars include the fact that Jews and blacks were prohibited from buying homes in certain Mt. Lebanon neighborhoods until the 1970s. Even prizefighter Muhammad Ali was stymied in his efforts to buy a house in Virginia Manor in 1971.
“You can’t whitewash it,” Miller said. “That’s why I felt it was important to put together a diverse coalition, with support from the school district and the town.”
Miller was pleased with the turnout.
“The whole point was to show a reflection of the character of our community, and I think we did,” he said. “I really wasn’t surprised; I know our town.”
Miller praised the leadership of Temple Emanuel and Beth El for encouraging their members to support the rally.
“I loved how they jumped in with both feet,” Miller said. “Their energy brought in more people. We had tremendous support from the Jewish community.”
More than 95 percent of Mt. Lebanon residents are white, according to census data. Less than one percent is black, Hispanic, or American Indian. Just over 2 percent are Asian. It is unclear how many Jewish families reside in Mt. Lebanon among its approximately 13,500 total households, but there were about 3,000 Jewish households throughout the South Hills area in 2002, according to the most recent Jewish community study.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.