The American Jewish Citizen I Aspire To Be

by Rabbi Ron Symons

There are certain verses that were placed as foundation stones of the Jew I aspire to be. Growing up in Temple Emanu-el of Lynbrook, NY, under the leadership of Rabbi Harold Saperstein z’l, I learned that “You (plural) shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19) serves as the foundation for the sacred community in which I grew up and towards which I lovingly labor to build on a daily basis with hundreds of members of our community. My professors at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem and New York taught me that Rabbi Tarfon’s admonition “You don’t have to finish the work, but neither can you turn away from it” (Pirke Avot) would serve as a rabbinic mantra for my lifelong study, pastoral work and social justice advocacy. No matter where my desk has been throughout the years, I have always hung over my desk a calligraphic piece of art that my wife Barbara had commissioned by a friend. It is another quote from Pirke Avot, this time from Rabbi Chananya, “When two sit together and words of Torah pass between them, the Shechinah (Divine Indwelling Presence) rests upon them.” All of these verses guide me in my aspirations to be the Jew I am yet to be.

There are certain verses that were placed as foundation stones of the American Citizen I aspire to be. Thomas Jefferson declared in 1776, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In 1789, our political leaders constituted, “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” It was in that same year that they affirmed our basic rights beginning with, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” All of these verses guide me in my aspirations to be the American Citizen I am yet to be.

I am quite resolute about these two foundations. This is what I know. We are commanded to strive to build a sacred community understanding that we might not finish the work and that God dwells between us when we speak sacred words. All of us across the religious and racial spectrum (as we have come to better understand than did our founding fathers) are created in the image of God in order to build a more perfect Union without any one religion becoming the established religion of our country. I read in these six verses three themes: we are all in this together, we aspire to transform the world, and, the plurality of our religious experience invites God to dwell among us.

This is the hallmark of the Prophetic mandate to repair the world according to the sacred values of the People of Israel as expressed throughout the course of world history. While it is not a partisan mandate, it is a mandate to apply Jewish wisdom in the American public square without mandating a state religion. Those who argue, “Others do that in their fundamentalism, that’s not what Jews do” are missing the mark. Those who argue, “Let’s just apply them in the Jewish community and not in the world at large” fail to understand that the hole underneath the seat of my neighbor’s chair on our boat impacts me as much as it does her. When our society fails one of its members, all of us fail by losing the potential good that person could have done by being a leader in this generation or the next. Quite simply put, the teen I do not know who fails out of high school could have been the doctor who will cure cancer during my generation’s later years.

That is why so many of us are committed to applying our progressive and pluralistic faith based values to the work of building a better city, region, state and country.

  • My own Temple Sinai has organized itself as a Just Congregation to improve the quality of care offered to Jewish seniors in Pittsburgh, to ensure that every resident of Pittsburgh has a decent education, no matter his neighborhood, that everyone who needs a public bus can actually find one in a timely manner, and that we protect our fragile environment with special concern about our rivers.
  • The Pittsburgh Jewish Social Justice Roundtable has begun organizing members of the Jewish community representing synagogues and other organizations for the past 6 months around voter rights, food insecurity, public education and clean rivers.
  • The Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network Southwest (PIIN) has grown to be the largest interfaith congregation based community organizing network our region knows as we dare to transform public transportation, public education, clean rivers/good jobs, wanton gun violence, and diversity on our Pittsburgh police force. We do that together, stronger because of our faith, racial and economic diversity.
  • Reform Jewish Voices of Pennsylvania has recently formed (following similar models in NY and NJ) to allow us to engage our state legislatures on issues of concern to us in accordance with the stated policies of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
  • The Gamaliel Network, that trained a then young organizer Barack Obama, has the attention of Congress and the White House in our conversations about ensuring that the neediest among us do not fall off the fiscal cliff, that immigrants be given fair opportunities in this country built on the backs of immigrants, that we stop building prisons based on the 3rd grade black male dropout rates across the country, and that our country moves over 1,000,000 people from poverty to work. During a recent trip to our Capital, I was energized by all of this work during intimate meetings with leaders in Congress and the White House.

We are not alone today just as we have not been alone in generations past. I recently visited the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington DC with my dear brother on this journey, the Rev. Richard Freeman of the Braddock Baptist Resurrection Church. For both of us, it was our first time there and we wanted to go together. We read the words Dr. King spoke to 26,000 African American high school students in 1959:

“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”

Journeying with Richard to that sacred place, I could only imagine how King might have had a conversation with his partner in the struggle for civil rights, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. It was during that same time when Heschel wrote:

“In a free society, only some are guilty but all are responsible.”

Look at what they achieved in their day even with the limitations racial bias still held on American society. Even without full equality in today’s America, I know that we can live their dream and do our share to advance it even more; knowing that the next generation will strive in their own way to finish the work.

This is the American Jewish citizen I aspire to be.

Rabbi Ron Symons serves as the Director of The Tikkun Olam Center for Jewish Social Justice at Temple Sinai and as the President of the Gamaliel National Clergy Caucus. He proudly partners with other people of faith, passion and justice in the organizations mentioned above.