Rabbi James Gibson upholds civic responsibilities while ‘failing retirement’
Rabbi James GibsonDoing democracy

Rabbi James Gibson upholds civic responsibilities while ‘failing retirement’

Serving Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations is chance to create 'better, kinder, decent, just city'

Rabbi James Gibson. (Photo by Dale Lazar)
Rabbi James Gibson. (Photo by Dale Lazar)

Rabbi James Gibson is “failing retirement.”

That’s what Gibson, 69, said when describing his role with the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, a governmental agency chartered under the city’s code and answerable to the mayor’s office.

Once a month, Gibson and fellow commissioners “promote justice and understanding” by investigating alleged acts of misconduct to “decrease unfair treatment and discrimination,” according to the commission’s website.

Complaints brought to the commission, Gibson noted, may involve employment, housing, public accommodations or city services provided by a city employee.

Within Pittsburgh there are “protected classes, which include race, religion, creed, LGBTQIA status and disability,” Gibson said. “If you are concerned that any of these factors, which are protected classes under the city code, were the reason for an action against you, you can come to the commission, which will take the complaint as investigators, will talk to both sides and make a recommendation to the commissioners.”

If probable cause is found, a mandatory meeting with the parties will be scheduled.

That session, which closely resembles a mediation, is used to enable the parties to reach a mutual resolution; if an agreement cannot be made, a public hearing will be held.

Gibson, who retired from Temple Sinai in 2020 after a 32-year run as its spiritual leader, began volunteering with the commission two years ago and serves on its compliance review section.

The CRS sub-commission reviews recommendations from commission staffers and determines whether a complaint moves forward or is set aside for lack of evidence.

“It is extremely rare that I would disagree with the findings of the investigators because they do a really good job,” Gibson said.

Gibson remains active with the group, he said, because he considers it “a civic responsibility. There are city commissions that only work if citizens step forward and serve on these panels and commissions.”

Gibson credited the nearly 15-person assembly with having a diverse volunteer pool.

“There are people from different neighborhoods, people of different ethnicities — some are kind of well-to-do and others not so much — but they all get an equal voice in these discussions about the complaints that are brought to the commission,” he said.

Gibson said his fellow volunteers know about his faith, retirement and earlier professional duties.

“The interesting aspect of this has been that there are times when either a complainant or respondent is somebody in the Jewish community that I know,” he said. In those instances, “I immediately recuse myself from having any vote whatsoever as to what the outcome is going to be in that case.”

When considering a rabbinic career that spanned decades at Temple Sinai, 24 months with a city commission isn’t long. Still, the values prescribed by this agency are consistent with the goals of his earlier personal undertakings, Gibson said.

“I’ve never felt confined to my office in the synagogue,” he said. “I’ve done a great deal of work in the interracial community, interfaith community, social justice community. And this is simply another way of advancing the ideals that the city has enshrined in its code. Ideals that I agree with, as a religious leader, but also as a citizen.”

Gibson noted that he has a big birthday coming up.

Age offers some perspective, the retired rabbi noted.

“I am one of those old, old people who feel that ‘citizen’ is a noble word and involves responsibilities, not just rights,” he said. “I have a responsibility to the city in which I live to help make a better, kinder, decent, just city.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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