I received an invitation from a friend to attend the first annual “Pittsburgh Celebrates Israel” event sponsored by a broad representation of predominantly black churches and the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh Community Relations Council held on June 4 at the Covenant Church of Pittsburgh.
I anticipate the reaction of some of my Jewish friends to whom I say “Wait a minute before you jump to any conclusions – just read on.”
I arrived at the location, a huge church building with a sprawling parking lot swarming with cars. On entering the building I found a large auditorium dressed with Israeli flags. There were no religious symbols on the walls. There were hundreds of people, young and old, mostly black, a large stage, an orchestra, a choir, center stage for the presidium and to the left a group of women dancers all dressed in white. I was handed a deluxe publication, the program with a photo of the the Western Wall on the cover.
The hosts of the event were Reverend Robert Stearns and the Covenant bishop, Bishop Joseph L. Garlington. Reverend Stearns is the founder of the Israel Experience College Scholarship Program an Israeli tour and study program designed to give young Christian college students “a heart for Israel”. He is also the founder of the annual “Day of Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem,” observed around the world on the first Sunday in October. The sponsors also include El-Al, and the Israeli Ministry of Tourism in New York.
The program was conducted by Reverend Stearns, a gifted speaker, singer and musician. The celebration began with the blowing of a shofar and the singing of Hatikvah in Hebrew, transliterated and displayed on three large screens. The first speaker was the Counsel-General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region, Yaron Sideman. The Jewish Federation was represented by Skip Grinberg, Chair of the Community Relations Council and Gregg Roman, the Director of Community Relations. Bishop Garlington greeted the assembled. In the intervals the orchestra and choir played Israeli songs, and the dancers danced. Many in the audience danced in the aisles. Kosher food was served at the conclusion of the program out of respect for Jewish guests.
At one point, Reverend Stearns announced “Among us is a Holocaust survivor, a resistance fighter, a veteran of the Second World War.” Then he said “Moshe, rise!” I was startled, but rose and was immediately swarmed by people who wanted to hug me, take pictures, and I realized that my presence there was a unique opportunity for an entire community to meet someone who had survived the Holocaust. It was an overwhelming moment.
When I share this experience with some of my Jewish friends, they often express skepticism about the real motives behind this event. What I tell them is that as a survivor, I feel strongly that the opportunity to speak to non-Jewish audiences is an opportunity to tell our stories, and we do not gloss over the role of Christians who collaborated with the Nazis or who were bystanders.
David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of England said in 1925 “You may say you have been oppressed and persecuted — that has been your power! You have been hammered into very fine steel, and that is why you have never been broken.” If nothing else, my presence at this assembly has confronted this audience who I would not otherwise have been able to meet with a very personal image of the survival and vitality of the Jewish people.