Rabbi Jonah Pesner is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He visited Pittsburgh on the one-year mark of the massacre at the Tree of Life building and met with rabbis and lay leaders of the five Reform congregations in the city.
Pesner sat down with the Chronicle to talk about Pittsburgh, his views on social justice, anti-Semitism and using Jewish values as a guide through troubling times.
Why did you decide to visit Pittsburgh now?
One of the most compelling and inspiring experiences of my life was seeing the way in which the Pittsburgh community, led by the Jewish community and surrounded by the broader community, came together in the wake of the Oct. 27 shooting.
I was at Soldiers & Sailors and saw an incredible example of solidarity when the Jewish community welcomed members of the Muslim community. I saw an African American pastor who talked about defending Jewish people and recognizing anti-Semitism, but he also acknowledged that two black people had been shot in a Kroger’s three days beforehand.
Pittsburgh plays an important role in my leadership as the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, as a case study in what it looks like when a community comes together to protect one another and fight for policies that will make everyone safer and everyone’s lives better.
I also met with the Center for Loving Kindness, which is unique. There is not another community in the country that I am aware of where the Jewish Community Center has created a context, a space, for interfaith people to come together and do good in the world.
How do you respond to people that say, “It’s a year later and there has been a lot of cooperation between different communities — Jewish, Muslim, African American, Christian, etc. — and yet not much is changing?”
This is a generational challenge. The Tree of Life shooting was the nadir in the battle against racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism and hate. We’re going to have more setbacks before it gets better. I think, the same way we look back on the massive transformation in America from the 1950s to the ’60s through the civil rights movement and revolution, and corollary movements in gay rights, the women’s movement, etc., we’re in a major moment in America. The faith community: synagogue by synagogue, church by church, mosque by mosque, temple by temple and our civic partners: parent-teacher organizations, civic societies, agencies, health centers have to come together for the common good.
Rev. Jen Bailey, a black pastor says, “relationships move at the speed of trust; social change moves at the speed of relationships.” So, to rebuild the kind of trust needed to put an end to these violent acts of bigotry; to end the policies that have allowed guns to become ubiquitous and accessible; to end the xenophobia and fear of migrants; to end Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, it is going to take an enormous amount of trust and relationship building.
How does the Jewish community build the kind of political muscle necessary to fight for our security and advocate for beliefs that may be different from other groups?
There’s an anecdote in J.J. Goldberg’s book “Jewish Power” that says, “Jews have more power than they realize but less power than anti-Semites accuse us of having.” We know what Jewish power looks like. We have had a very successful pro-Israel lobby. It’s important that Jews have built the kind of political muscle needed to fight for and defend Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship. The question is, how do we build that political power in a broader agenda to amplify our enduring Jewish values that find their origins in the biblical text. Those values are universal and are shared with our non-Jewish neighbors and show a broader agenda than just the Jewish defense agenda. It’s important that we advocate for and build Jewish power to defend ourselves while at the same time to do social justice work, both because the prophets demand it and it makes us safer. It’s a both/and. Hillel got it right, ‘If I’m not for myself who will be for me, but if I’m for myself alone, what am I?’ You have to balance being there for the Jewish community and being there for others. We lose our humanness if we aren’t for others. When we show up for Muslim, migrants, undocumented people, then they show up for us.
We’re at the start of an election year. How do we not get caught up in partisan politics and stay focused on those enduring Jewish values you spoke of?
The way we will maintain our moral center is by trusting our text. Every Jew should read Hillel and Shammai on a regular basis. There’s a debate between the two, and the students of each say they are right, a heavenly voice interrupts and says ‘Eilu v’Eilu,’ ‘these and those are the words of the living God.’ Interestingly, the heavenly voice says the halakha goes to Hillel because when Hillel announced his opinion, he would first quote Shammai. The idea that you would take the person you disagree with so seriously and amplify her or his position, is radically relational. If we live in that space, trying to create a kind of discourse and decision-making process that honors the divinity of all in the room, goodness will emerge. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at drullo@