Several people packed into the YMCA in the Hill District last week for the last in a three-part series on black-Jewish relations in Pittsburgh, which addressed the fallout from the 1968 riots.
Actually, “packed” is the wrong word. The all-purpose room at the Y was half empty. And those who did show up were mostly older people — Jewish and black leaders who either grew up on the Hill, or remember what was happening in 1968 when, following Martin Luther King’s assassination, the Hill burned.
Some people were disturbed by the weak turnout. One woman, who moved back to Pittsburgh five years ago from Washington and had been to all three town hall meetings, said if this program had taken place in D.C. the meetings would have been packed with activists and young people.
“Where are the young people?” she asked.
The panelists were clearly people who care about the Hill and black-Jewish relations: Barbara Burstin, Alma Fox, Tim Stevens, Curtiss Porter, Rabbi James Gibson, Dr. Cyril Wecht and Will Darling — people who either grew up on the Hill, lived and worked there or made a study of life on the Hill and how it has changed.
But the keynote speaker, Larry Glasco, an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh who has written about the Hill, addressed the elephant in the room: Since the riots of 1968, when many Jewish-owned businesses on the Hill were destroyed, there has been a disconnect between the two communities — a rift that never completely healed.
He called it “one big unresolved tension between the black and Jewish communities” and a “legacy of bitterness.”
And it must be addressed for the two communities to move forward.
The August Wilson Center and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh are to be commended for putting this series together, and for bringing the just-concluded “Nazi Olympics” exhibit to the city. All these programs highlighted the very real fact that the two communities have more that unites them than divides them.
But differences do remain. If they are ever to be resolved then the dialogue that started this year must continue — uninterrupted.
Back to the lady’s comment: There really weren’t many young faces at last week’s program — almost none. The panelists, and others in the audience have work tirelessly for their communities for many years.
But they are the old guard. Where is the new guard?
Here’s what we propose: another series of town hall meetings — only a series geared specifically to the 20-something black and Jewish leaders in Pittsburgh. Let them come together and bring their own unique viewpoint on the state of black-Jewish relations in the city.
And let them come together through formats that are meaningful to them. Maybe they don’t care to meet at the Hill District Y or the Jewish Community Center. Perhaps they prefer to come together — initially, at first — through cyber forums, or maybe a casual setting, like a brewpub.
From our end, J-Burgh could be instrumental in organizing this.
The panelists from last week’s town hall meeting would still have a role to play, but as facilitators — guest speakers who come, teach what they experienced and listen to what these future leaders have to say. They should serve as a bridge from what has been to what can be.
To be sure, the 1968 riots scarred many cities, not just Pittsburgh. But Pittsburgh is our responsibility; to address this issue now, it’s time for a new generation.