Where Did All the non-Jewish Leaders Come from at our Vigils?
By Rabbi Doug Kahn
Dozens of interfaith vigils were held in communities and on college campuses around the country to mourn the 11 Jews murdered at Shabbat services in Pittsburgh and to proclaim “no more hate.” They were organized on short notice with synagogues, Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRCs), federations, JCCs, JFCS’s, Hillels and many other Jewish institutions cooperating and working around the clock in response to the Saturday morning massacre that sent shock waves through our community and beyond. At many venues, the crowds overflowed into the streets largely due to a massive turnout from the wider community. All told, based on initial reports from colleagues around the country, well over 100,000 people came together from coast to coast. One of the most visible and powerful components of the vigils – the tremendous response of non-Jewish leaders – was largely connected to one of the least visible activities in the Jewish community: JCRCs’ daily work building relationships beyond our community.
Indeed, a common ingredient this past weekend was the heartening picture of top Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Protestant, Hindu, African-American, Latino and Asian leaders standing side by side public officials and Jewish community leaders to signal wall-to-wall condemnation of anti-Semitism in the strongest terms and to join with us in our hour of need – with powerful words and prayers of solidarity and solace. And they brought their community members with them. It is hard to describe what this outpouring has meant to us as Jews. We are vigilant about our security because of the lessons of our history. Yet we were never fully prepared emotionally for such a day to arrive in our country, as tragically it did on Shabbat morning at Tree of Life Congregation. Vulnerable and violated as a community, we were immediately embraced and surrounded with love and friendship.
Where did they all come from – the countless public officials, religious and ethnic leaders and members of so many different faith and ethnic communities who participated in the vigils and stood with us in an unforgettable demonstration of love, solidarity and shared mourning in the aftermath of the slaughter.
Some had relationships with local rabbis. Others just came on their own – wanting to show up, to stand up, to say “enough” and demonstrate true leadership against hate. And for many non-Jewish community leaders who dropped everything to mourn with the Jewish community, the magnet was years of relationship building. Active Jewish participation around civic, interfaith and inter-ethnic coalition tables is what has led to the forging of enduring relationships and developing an ear for each community’s concerns. This was our hour of need and there was no hesitation. None.
One Jewish community organization focuses on that relationship-building day in and day out across the country – the Jewish Community Relations Council known locally as JCRC or CRC. (There are approximately 120 JCRCs around the country – tied together through the Jewish Council for Public Affairs). Often working with other Jewish organizations (ADL, AJCommittee, National Council of Jewish Women, etc.) and working in close partnership with Jewish federations, JCRCs pro-actively reach out to key Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, LGBTQ, Labor, African-American, Latino, Asian leaders and public officials to build long-lasting relationships focused around common concerns.
These vigils required a village – so many Jewish institutions working together – and at the same time because many in our community do not quite get what JCRCs do (we are not so good at the elevator pitch when we explain why we need to go to another coalition meeting), it is worth connecting the dots.
Over the years there has been support in the Jewish community for this bread-and-butter work, but also many questions: where is the tangible impact from this work, do these communities stand up for the Jews as we do for them, and why do we need to be at these tables? It should not take a tragedy to answer these questions. At the same time, that visual of key leaders from many different communities crowded on bimahs across the land should be permanently etched in our minds. To everyone who attended a vigil and felt lifted up and supported by our non-Jewish friends, neighbors and leaders, one plea – please recognize that the work of relationship building is more important than ever. It too is part of what makes our community – and other minority communities – secure. It means that when other communities need us we must show up and that through our relationship building and engagement on issues of vital concern to other communities, our non-Jewish friends will know when their presence and voices in our midst will make a difference.
It is also a plea for more Jewish community leaders to respond to calls to join in key coalitional tables where the relationships are forged. Indeed, this is a time to say thank you to our non-Jewish friends and to redouble our relationship-building efforts.
Sometimes quotes from Pirke Avot can sound clichéd. But it is worth rereading Hillel’s famous dictum in light of the response to Pittsburgh. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” It is almost as if Hillel was writing the mission statement for JCRCs – and our community.
Rabbi Doug Kahn is the Executive Director Emeritus of the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco and founder of Broad Tent Consulting.