Rabbi Ron Symons began a new chapter in his rabbinate in July 2015 when he accepted the position of senior director of Jewish life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. For two years, Symons helped the JCC overhaul its teen engagement program and assisted with key initiatives including enriching Jewish life, tradition and community.
During that time, the community center revamped the space previously occupied by the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, creating the 2nd Floor, a location Symons called “Hillel on campus for teens.” In a precursor to the community work Symons would soon begin, he viewed this new space as a place for partnership and collaboration and worked with NFTY, USY, NCSY, BBYO, Young Judaea and Bnei Akiva to fulfill that vision.
When Symons and JCC CEO Brian Schrieber began to discuss and envision a “21st century way of engaging in a Jewish value proposition through the JCC,” he kept coming back to the importance of partnership and community.
Three Jewish principles guided Symons as he began the work of creating what would become the JCC’s Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement.
The first two were from the book of Leviticus: “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “do not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds.”
The final concept came from Rabbi Joachim Prinz. Prinz escaped Nazi Germany and became deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement in America. It was Prinz who addressed the crowd in Washington, D.C., before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Prinz articulated the third Jewish concept Symons and Schrieber would come back to time and again when creating the Center for Loving Kindness. “That in the Hebrew bible,” Symons explained, “neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept.”
With these three underlying Jewish principles, the pair began the work of building a “center within a center.”
Over the next several months, the CFLK began engaging both Jews and non-Jews in a way that Symons said wasn’t happening at the time. That work was made easier by the locations of the two Pittsburgh JCCs in Squirrel Hill and the South Hills.
“Location, location, location,” Symons illustrated. “It’s where the branch is located that so many people look to it as a town square and it’s the location of the people located in the right places.”
Rather than pushing a stand-alone vision from the top down, Symons believed it was important the new center “influenced the work of the entire JCC community and the Jewish community at large.”
As Symons explained, the type of work he felt was needed could only be accomplished through partnerships—both in the Jewish and interfaith communities.
“That first year there were over 90 different partners, Jewish Family and Community Services…Repair the World…local churches. Our strongest partner is actually Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania. They are the ecumenical Christian organization for over 2,000 churches in Southwestern, Pennsylvania.”
Planned on the anniversary of the King’s 1963 March on Washington, the inaugural event planned by the CFLK coincided with another event that highlighted the need for the center, the Charlottesville riots.
In the 14 months that followed, Symons and the center worked with refugee organizations, sponsored candidate forums, engaged with interfaith partners, confronted racism and bigotry through conversation and programs and created opportunities for communities to come together, exemplified by the “Movies We Have to Talk About Program” which screened the Mr. Rogers documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” at the Squirrel Hill JCC.
As Symons recalled, the Oct. 27 shooting at the Tree of Life building forced the center to reexamine the work it had been doing.
“The difference between Oct. 26 and Oct. 28 is that everything was exactly the same and everything was completely different.” He recalled that because of the work done the previous year, “we had a foundational perspective on what we needed to do, and boy were we grateful.”
“What has become different, post Oct. 27,” he continued, “is that we have come to have a better understanding of the empathy we need when a community is in crisis.”
That empathy extended beyond the Jewish community, Symons explained. He noted that while the attack on the Jewish community was a low frequency/high impact event, many communities experience high frequency/high impact events on a regular basis.
Assisting those communities that experience trauma is one of three goals Symons has set for the new year.
“One is building relationships across all communities, including those with perceived and real differences around religion, ethnicity, skin tone, race, geography and politics.
“We have another goal of talking about important issues…immigration, the opioid epidemic, etc.
“The third goal is helping communities through trauma and healing. We know something about this, right? That’s why we brought people from Parkland to us. Because we knew that Parkland would help us better understand what it means to be attacked.”
Schrieber believes the CFLK’s platform “strengthens the fabric of our community and throughout the region through various programs and events that amplify civic dialogue through various forms.”
To assist and build community and amplify dialogue, the CFLK is creating a new program, UPstander. This new program will train 75 people, regardless of faith, ethnicity, nationality, or JCC membership. Its goal is to move people from bystander to participant, not standing idle as their brother bleeds and to love their neighbor as themselves.
Those concepts, along with making neighbor a moral concept continues to motivate Symons. He hopes they will motivate the Pittsburgh community as well.
“In the words of the ancient rabbis,” he paraphrased, “if you’ve learned something and you’ve been inspired, get off your tuchus and go do something.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.