The exit interview: Rabbi Ron Symons
TransitionsRabbi Ron Symons

The exit interview: Rabbi Ron Symons

Spiritual guide looks back on time in Pittsburgh, efforts to create change

Rabbi Ron Symons. Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh
Rabbi Ron Symons. Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh

A local resident is asking the Pittsburgh Jewish community to remember — even after he moves — that “‘neighbor’ is not a geographic term, it’s a moral concept.”

Rabbi Ron Symons has guided Pittsburghers for more than 15 years through professional posts at the now-defunct Agency for Jewish Learning, Temple Sinai and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. Even before serving as senior director of Jewish life and director of the Center for Loving Kindness at the JCC, Symons made social justice the cornerstone of his efforts. He is certain the work will continue long after he and his wife, Rabbi Barbara Symons, relocate next month. Until then, “Rabbi Ron” will continue using his voice to foster engagement.

The well-known spiritual guide spoke with the Chronicle about his upcoming move, past projects and what’s ahead.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I know you’ll still be neighbors with everyone in Pittsburgh, but where are you going and why?

We are moving back to the metro New York area, where we have family and friends, where there are people that still call me “Ronnie.” It is 100% a pull and not a push. We love Pittsburgh. We love the work that we’ve done. We love the people that we do that work with. And now we’re trying to find that balance of doing work and being with family and friends.

You’ve made quite the impact over the years. What brought you here in the first place?

We came to Pittsburgh 18 years ago when Barbara became the rabbi of Temple David.

What were you up to?

At the time, after having served in congregations and day schools, I was working for the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, Israel, helping them advance what eventually became their Zoom technology-based International Education Program and doing fundraising for them.

How about when you got here?

I continued that work and added being a regional educator for the Union for Reform Judaism, throughout Pennsylvania, advising congregations on how to strengthen their religious school programs. I also started working with the Agency for Jewish Learning, doing adult education and professional development.

Tell me about Temple Sinai.

Sixteen years ago, I joined the staff of Temple Sinai, originally to focus on building the Midrash Center for Jewish Learning, which was our version of doing lifelong learning. That expanded beyond the Midrash Center into the Tikkun Olam Center for Social Justice, where we did a lot of faith-based community organizing with Black churches and others. It included standing up for issues of the environment, safe gun ownership and the Fight for $15, for UPMC employees. I was also happy to be part of so many holiday and life cycle moments at Temple Sinai, just learning with people and being with them at the most trying times and the most celebratory times of their lives.

At the JCC you’ve integrated many of your past involvements. How did your role at the center evolve?

I came to the JCC nine years ago as the senior director of Jewish life but was also responsible for transforming Jewish teen engagement in Pittsburgh. At the time, the Agency for Jewish Learning was closing down, and we realized in partnership with the Federation that the JCC was the right place to transfer those efforts. My first task at the JCC was to establish the Second Floor and build out a new model for how we engage with teens. I can say that is going strong, with somewhere over 350 teen memberships every year at the JCC.

And what about other methods of engagement?

We started the Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement in 2017. We knew there was something in the way that community fabric was being woven. And we realized that in both the macro and the micro of the impact of the 2016 presidential campaign — not because of the outcome but because of the way that the conversation had changed. We began a conversation with thought partners around Pittsburgh, the JCC and around the country about what it would look like if we took the values that guide the work of the JCC and push those forward in a 21st-century platform that allowed us to have regional impact. We figured out how to do that, and we are really grateful that we became stewards of the concept of strengthening the fabric of community by amplifying long-held values of “love your neighbor as yourself,” “do not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds,” and redefining the word “neighbor” from a geographic term to a moral concept.

What are the effects of those partnerships?

We’re really very humbled that we started this work in September 2017 and had a 14-month head start before tragedy hit us on Oct. 27, 2018. The strong network of interfaith, intercultural, interracial, civic engagement partnerships helped us to make our way through the impact of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue building. Much of that work was done in partnership with Rev. Liddy Barlow, the executive minister of Christian Associates in Southwest Pennsylvania, and it continues today.

You’ve been a supporter to so many colleagues. What would you like them to know?

I am so grateful to Brian Schreiber and Jason Kunzman, to the lay leaders and leadership team of the JCC, over these years for being so supportive of the innovative work that we’ve done in the area of teen engagement, in the area of Center for Loving Kindness, and also in the area of innovative Jewish engagement. Whether through PJ Library or our High Holidays of Hope, all of those innovations took a little bit of guts to move us forward in community life.

A new hire was named to help move the needle. Any insights about the days ahead?

I am very excited about the decision to hire Hindy Finman as the next senior director of Jewish life. Hindy will be ordained a rabbi by the Hebrew College in Boston this spring and will come to the JCC with a new set of eyes: not only someone that has not lived in Pittsburgh before, not only as a rabbi from a post-denominational seminary, but also as someone who has a younger perspective on the world around. I think that Hindy is going to bring even more innovation, more insights and even more connectivity than what we have experienced so far.

There will be a farewell event on May 30 in your honor. What does it mean to be celebrated before you go?

It’s very humbling. And the way I’m figuring out how to make my way through it is that it’s a celebration of what we all have done together. I’m looking forward to being with JCC staff and members — with members of the Jewish community and wider community — to celebrate our dream and vision of what we hope Pittsburgh could be. I’m hopeful that we got just a little bit closer because of how I’ve interacted with people and how they’ve helped me advance the cause. I know there is so much more to do, and that’s a big part of what that event is: to acknowledge that we’ve made it so far, and that we have more to do, so let’s keep on going with
it. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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