Residents embrace after a mass shooting left at least 10 dead at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, Oct. 27, 2018. (Jared Wickerham/The New York Times)

Opinion: Relationships can link, enrich communities, region

I spent a few remarkable days in my hometown of Pittsburgh in May as a participant on the Atlanta Regional Commission’s 23rd annual Atlanta LINK trip. What an incredible opportunity it was to learn about change from cities that are in the midst of transformation. What an honor it was travel with Atlanta thought leaders who are all committed to thinking big and working regionally.

And how thrilling it was for me, personally, to return to a thriving Pittsburgh that has transformed its economy from steel manufacturing to education and medicine. Modern Pittsburgh has a vibrant arts scene, great food, and a dramatic cityscape that celebrates bridges and riverfronts.

The exhausted industrial Pittsburgh I fled 35 years ago was a city in decline where opportunity seemed rare, where I never felt I could be part of shaping the future. The Atlanta I ran away to was a city on the upswing — growing, optimistic and risk-taking. I loved Atlanta’s rich history of civil rights activism and its Jewish community, which embraced me. I immediately felt at home.

I go back to Pittsburgh often. I still have family there, and I’m a rabid Steelers fan. My Squirrel Hill neighborhood, where Fred Rogers was literally my neighbor, is still an idyllic place to grow up. It remains the Jewish heart of Pittsburgh — a place of deep human connections, enhanced by city parks, strong public schools, and harmonious ethnic diversity.

When the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history happened in Squirrel Hill, at Congregation Tree of Life, it was shattering. I’d been to dozens of bar and bat mitzvahs there, and I knew several of the victims.

I believe that the very elements made my boyhood so sweet, are what helped Pittsburgh weather the tragedy. When I went back, several weeks after the tragedy, I could see that what endures are human relationships and acts of kindness.

On the LINK trip I joined with Bill Bolling, one of my longtime mentors and the former CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, to lead a session on making Atlanta a more welcoming community through interfaith relationships. We engaged with leaders in Pittsburgh’s Jewish, Christian and Islamic communities who were all involved in the city’s response to the tragedy at Congregation Tree of Life.

They affirmed that it was the relationships they had built before the tragedy that allowed them to respond with such love and impact. We all agreed that one of Atlanta’s great strengths is its network of faith groups. But we know that network could and should be stronger. From my vantage point as a Jewish community leader, it was a clear reminder that we have work to do across faiths, and also inside the Jewish community.

The Jewish community began some of that work over a year ago when many of our community leaders traveled to Israel together to build relationships and experience Israeli innovation. It was a tremendous start. And even though Jewish Atlanta is spread out and doesn’t have the cohesive neighborhoods of a Pittsburgh, we have amazing assets — a growing population and an enviable infrastructure of synagogues, schools and organizations.

Now the LINK trip provides another opportunity to build our beloved community. ARC has created five LINK “Discovery Groups” to continue our discussions. As a group leader, I’m excited to engage with my new friends and colleagues and keep dreaming about how to build a better Atlanta. These relationships are everything. Together, we can be a spark ignites bold and collaborative models of social justice, generosity and community resilience.

Eric M. Robbins is president and CEO, Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

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