Look for the Helpers, Be the Helpers: How Pittsburgh's Reform Community Came Together

Inside Leadership

Look for the Helpers, Be the Helpers: How Pittsburgh's Reform Community Came Together

One hand reaching out to give a flower to another

For the last six months, the URJ’s Strengthening Congregations team has been working on the URJ Day of Leadership Learning: Finding the Joy in Board Service, which took place on October 28th in nearly 70 sites across North America. More than 1,200 congregational leaders participated!

I’d been selected to facilitate the event at the Pittsburgh site, and for months, I’d been working with the local leadership team at Temple Ohav Shalom to prepare. Then, as I was preparing to leave for my flight to Pittsburgh, I received the news that an active shooter event was currently unfolding at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Like so many, my heart dropped. I immediately thought of a friend who is a rabbi in Pittsburgh. I immediately wondered how another shooting could happen, again, here in America. This year alone has seen 297 mass shootings. That’s nearly one a day! And, honestly, I began to feel a tremendous sense of anxiety, especially because this happened in a synagogue and on Shabbat – in a city I was visiting in just a few hours.

If you’ve ever wondered what your congregation gets for its URJ dues or what it means to be part of the Reform Movement, I hope you felt a connection to something larger in the hours, days, and weeks following the Pittsburgh shooting. I hope you felt a degree of comfort hearing from our Movement leaders – perhaps receiving guidance on how to talk to children, prayers to share, and music to lead toward healing.

I also want you to know that within minutes of the shooting, URJ leaders had reached out to every Reform synagogue in Pittsburgh, connecting with professionals and lay leaders. The first thing we conveyed was, “We are here for you, we stand with you, and we are ready to bring you anything you need.”

Across the board, the response we received was, “We are OK, and we are happy to know you stand with us. We want to carry on with tomorrow’s event.”

Our local community leaders were resolute in their desire to move forward – so I boarded a plane and headed to Pittsburgh, not knowing how the community would feel or how the next day would go.

The strength and resolution of the Pittsburgh community made me think about Moses’ instruction to Joshua as he prepared to cross the Jordan. When Joshua was overwhelmed by the task before him, Moses said, “Be strong and resolute, do not fear or dread your enemies; for God marches with you: God will not fail you or forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6).

Gathering in sanctuaries these last two weeks has, unfortunately, been an act of courage. But the many leaders in Pittsburgh – and in our other locations across North America – have shown their strength and resolution. While we cried out in our anguish, we were resolute: We will not be changed, and we will carry on. We will use our words to pray, to connect with others, and to connect with God.

We planned to begin the URJ Day of Leadership Learning with a piece of text. We chose Psalm 150, which sings of the joy we should all feel in serving God. We in Pittsburgh began with this text, while some leaders at other sites decided not to look at the text, but rather to write prayers and send thoughts to Pittsburgh.

Despite following the most difficult day the city has perhaps ever seen, we challenged ourselves to find joy: joy in gathering together in a holy space, joy in serving our congregations, joy in serving God – even in dark and sad times. While it wasn’t an easy text, and there were more than a few tears, the most humbling experience, for me, was to listen as the conversation at each table unfolded.

I heard participants begin with the question, “How can we even talk about joy on a day like today?” Yet their conversations ended with promises to raise up moments of joy in the dark days ahead and to recommit to serving their congregations.

I was uncertain whether those in the room would have the resolve to spend three hours learning about how to find joy in board service (or whether I would have the strength to lead them), but I was utterly humbled by each attendee’s commitment to do just that. As we proceeded throughout the day I felt strengthened by each participant’s loving, open heart, and I finished the day resolute in my own commitment to serving others and to serving our Reform Movement as a way to serve God.

The mission of the URJ is to build a world of wholeness, justice, and compassion. Now more than ever – as we seek healing for ourselves, for our broken community, and for those mourning direct loss in Pittsburgh and elsewhere – we must be strong and resolute in this important mission.

Squirrel Hill was Mister Rogers’ neighborhood. As our speaker ended her teaching for the day, she shared this quote from him: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

While we are indebted to the helpers who rush toward violence and tragedy, let us all also be among the helpers. Let us remember that creating a world of wholeness, justice, and compassion begins with small acts of kindness.

Let us go forth with a strength of heart and have the courage to bring this world closer every day.

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Debbie Niederman, RJE, is the associate director of the Union for Reform Judaism's Leadership Institute.

Debbie Niederman

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