Where did all the non-Jewish Leaders come from at our Vigils?

Wasi Mohamed, executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, speaks at an interfaith vigil in the city’s Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall following the shootings. (photo by Publicsource.org)

Dozens of interfaith vigils were held 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 other Jewish institutions cooperating around the clock in response to the Saturday morning massacre that sent shock waves through the country. At many venues, the crowds overflowed into the streets.
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.
Indeed, a common ingredient from the vigils were the heartening pictures of top Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Protestant, Hindu, African-American, Latino and Asian leaders standing side by side with 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 our history. Yet we were never prepared emotionally for such a day to arrive in our country, as tragically it did, on Shabbat morning at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha. 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.” But for many non-Jewish community leaders who dropped everything to mourn with us, the magnet was years of relationship building.
One Jewish community organization, the JCRC, focuses on that relationship-building day in and day out across the country. Working with other Jewish organizations, JCRCs proactively reach out to key Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, LGBTQ, Labor, African-American, Latino and Asian leaders, and public officials, to build long-lasting relationships focused around common concerns.
These vigils required a village, so because many in our community do not quite get what JCRCs do, 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?
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 bimas across the land should be permanently etched in our minds. To everyone who attended a vigil, please recognize that the work of relationship building is more important than ever. It is part of what makes our community secure. It means we show stand up when other communities need us, and our non-Jewish friends will know when their presence and voices 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.
Hillel said, “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.)

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