Over the last few weeks, I marked my 19th anniversary as the CEO of the greatest Jewish Federation in the greatest Jewish community in North America. When I interviewed for this role, I was asked to describe my vision for Jewish Pittsburgh. The answer I gave then is still the same I would give today (although Federation now has a formal vision statement). I desired Jewish Pittsburgh to be like my experience growing up at Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire. Yavneh was and continues to be a non-denominational Jewish camp with kids from all religious backgrounds, from the most traditionally observant to the least. It was a place where you grew Jewishly every single day, you cared for one another as part of the diverse, greater Yavneh community; and, perhaps what I appreciated most, you respected and cherished that diversity.
Fast forward nineteen years later, having been invited to the Bat Mitzvah of the daughter of one of our Federation Board members this past Shabbat at Shaare Torah, I was impressed by the Bat Mitzvah girl’s message to the congregation. She delivered a beautiful d’var Torah (her teaching us Torah) focusing on a piece from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers/Ancestors) that I adore. It says:
Joshua ben Perahiah used to say: appoint for thyself a teacher and acquire for thyself a friend and judge all with the scale weighted in his/her favor.
As I listened to her speaking with confidence from the bima, I began to reflect back on that vision I shared when interviewing because I think that idea for Jewish Pittsburgh is exactly what this piece of Mishna describes. In fact, I think in many ways Jewish Pittsburgh has followed the teaching especially well. We can learn more Jewishly and become more committed every day with a great teacher (or two). We can have great friends and build those friendships into micro-communities which together form the greater Pittsburgh community. But that last piece, about judging all with the scale weighted in their favor, I worry, seems most difficult to achieve and sometimes, I fear, it may be getting lost.
There are plenty of disagreements in the community. Trust me, I’ve seen my share in my 25 years here. The latest issue revolves around kosher food at Weinberg Terrace, the Jewish independent living facility that is part of our core partner agency, JAA. For those who haven’t paid attention to the news, JAA’s board has made changes to the way kosher food will be prepared for those residents who require it. (While I won’t get into the details, please know that it will continue to be made in a kosher kitchen under supervision of the Va’ad (the local Board of Orthodox Rabbis which oversees kosher issues, among other things, for the community).
Like the disagreements that have happened in the past, there are those who find issue with the decisions that community leaders have made. This is not problematic, at all. Disagreeing is not an issue, but the question is how do we handle those feelings of disagreement? Are we judging others favorably? To be honest, I have read some constructive comments on social media, but I have also seen some that are accusatory, some with misinformation, some that attack specific individuals and some that question the Jewish commitment of those in charge. This is not the Jewish approach to debate. As a past Board Chair at the Federation used to say, we can and must disagree with each other, but we can’t be disagreeable.
We are in the month of Elul which is traditionally when we begin the serious repentance process leading up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I hope everyone, with their strong feelings, can think about how they treat one another. I would like to take the opportunity to express my apologies for times when I did not approach issues with the “scale weighted in their favor”, whether consciously or not. We can all work harder to do better as issues arise.
Shabbat Shalom. Have a nice Labor Day weekend.