The great coming together
OpinionGuest Columnist

The great coming together

Temple Sinai's Rabbi Emeritus Jamie Gibson on tackling the challenges of Jewish Pittsburgh's future

Rabbi Jamie Gibson (Photo by Carol Rosenthal)
Rabbi Jamie Gibson (Photo by Carol Rosenthal)

This week is the great coming together for the Jewish people. Since the second day of Shavuot, the Diaspora Jewish community has been reading one weekly Torah portion while those in Israel read another. As the Diaspora reaches Chukat (which records the death of Miriam, Moses’ sister) this week, Israeli Jews proceed to Balak (the story of Bil’am’s famous talking she-donkey).

But here in the Diaspora, Chukat and Balak are combined, while in Israel they are reading Balak, alone. This ensures that our people come together this Shabbat and going forward, at least in reading Torah.

In dealing with our widespread Jewish community, our Sages were mindful of respecting differences without fostering divisions that would fester and permanently harm our people.

I think a lot about this as I leave my position as senior rabbi of Temple Sinai after 32 years, and assume the honorary position of emeritus rabbi. Trying to bring people together while respecting their differences has been goal of mine since before entering rabbinical school in the 1970s.

In the greater community, I have participated in and led dialogue and discussion groups that have tried to do more than declare that we are all creatures of the Divine worthy of caring and respect.

Whether in the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue, Christian-Jewish dialogue, the original Black-Jewish Dialogue or informal discussions with the Muslim community, the goal has been to nurture friendship, respect and trust for the purpose of raising our levels of knowledge and appreciation, despite principled, strong differences.

The single most challenging dialogue effort I participated in was the Jewish Unity Project, originally sponsored by the then United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh. Begun in the late 1990s, this effort, originally chaired by Rabbi Neil Scheindlin of Beth El Congregation, and then by Rabbi Yisroel Miller of Poale Zedeck and myself, brought together Jews from the ends of our religious spectrum. The purpose was to see what of our Jewish identities we could affirm and what issues were so problematic that we had to agree not to try to solve them.

This group of 20 started off very shakily, with people around the table asking difficult questions: What were we going to accomplish? Were we going to commit to a goal, a project, something to do? As if dialogue itself among opposing Jewish views was not an extraordinary accomplishment!

After the initial mood of mistrust, we got down to business, which was hearing the stories of everyone around the table and asking questions to make sure we understood what each person was sharing. This took a year and a half.

It was only after this sharing that people began to express their concern about differences that were raised. The single most tense moment came about when one person suggested that, just as an ice cream store offers many flavors, so did Judaism.

The room froze in an instant. My Orthodox friends were insulted by the notion that their view of God’s role in the world, in giving Torah, in keeping our people together, in giving meaning to life itself, could be reduced to an ice cream flavor.

I, a Reform rabbi, was the first to object to this reduction of faith to a matter of personal taste. When our traditional friends around the table saw this, their shoulders went down and we were able to dispense with the metaphor as unhelpful.

The issues facing the Pittsburgh Jewish community today are so much larger than the debate over ice cream metaphors. We all wonder:

1) Can our beloved Jewish community continue to proceed with our business as usual? There appear to be too many Jewish organizations and synagogues for our community to sustain. We could let nature take its course; Jewish organizations have come and gone for hundreds of years on their own. Or, can we bring together people and establish such trust that we can argue about principles – not people – and forge a shared vision?

Such an effort needs to be supported with both dollars and personnel. That money could come from a foundation like Wexner or the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh or another source. This group needs a sense of urgency without succumbing to crisis mode. This group needs to represent us all, as did the Jewish Unity Project so long ago. It needs to be small enough to share honestly and pull enough weight to point us in a common direction.

2) How inclusive will the Jewish community choose to be? Will we seek to open our tent wide on all four sides, as Abraham and Sarah did, according to our Sages? Or, will we simply look to the sha’ar ya-shuv, the saving remnant of Isaiah, to lead us into the unknown future?

I vote for inclusion. Every one of us, a gift from God, counts. I hope that our plans for the future bear this in mind.

3) What will be our relationship as Pittsburgh area Jews to the world beyond our Jewish concern? Do Black lives matter to us? Do poverty, discrimination and inequality matter to us? Does the phenomenal financial success of many in our Jewish community require a response to address inequality of opportunity and resources faced by countless people who have been held down for generations?

Some of these endeavors will require not only our clearest ethical vision but also our willingness to look beyond our personal or our community’s needs and wants.

If we want a seat at the table of justice, we had better be prepared to acknowledge our position and use it to benefit others because it promotes the wellbeing of all. It will be terribly difficult to hear what others have to say about us and not walk away, rather than stand up for ourselves. But claiming our place in the community discussion is necessary if we are to promote understanding and move toward the better world we all desire.

Who will lead these efforts? Who will help establish trust? Who has vision? Who will bring us together? One thing I know for certain – the manner in which we engage on our momentous challenges, the way we treat each other, will be as crucial to the result as any particular idea or resource.

As I leave my position as senior rabbi of Temple Sinai, I pray and hope that we might have a great coming together, even as the two great families of the Jewish world come together this Shabbat.

I have been honored and privileged to serve this incredible, unique Jewish community and wish only blessings on everyone who works in, or is associated, with it. PJC

Rabbi Jamie Gisbon served Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh as its senior rabbi for 32 years. He recently retired and now holds the title of emeritus rabbi.

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