Originally published: New Pittsburgh Courier 02/14/2019
By: Christian Morrow and J.L. Martello

“Urban League Sunday” is the organization’s signature event during Black History Month, and while its message over 33 years has long been one of striving for togetherness, that message may not have been delivered as forcefully as it was this year by keynote speaker Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha Congregation.

This year’s event, hosted at Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Hill District, noted Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO Esther Bush, marked her 25th year leading the organization, which just concluded its 100th year of service. Its theme for this year, set by the National Urban League, is “Getting to Equal: United, Not Divided.”

“Unity is the result of, and the foundation for, justice and equity,” she said during the Feb. 10 service. “The cure for discrimination is integration. The more we get to know one another the more we enjoy one another. Celebrate our differences. The tomorrow we long for isn’t simply going to arrive. We have to bring it into existence.”

Following a rousing rendition of Amazing Grace from the Impact singers and the band led by pianist and musical director Dr. Alton Merrell, Ebenezer Pastor Rev. Dr. Vincent Campbell recognized the faith leaders from other congregations, elected officials, first responders and other civic officials who attended.

“We welcome the spirit you have brought here; the spirit of peace and unity, the spirit of hope, and the spirit of love. It is the spirit we aspire to share,” he said.

Reverend Campbell then introduced Rabbi Myers, taking several minutes to read some of the degrees, awards and accolades he has received as a teacher and scholar over the years. But before he delivered the keynote homily, the band performed a swing-time version of “Jesus Loves Me This I Know.”

Rabbi Myers said it was his luck to have to follow that performance. He then suggested Dr. Merrell could play for his congregation.

“If you’re not busy on Saturday—the Jewish Sabbath. Although I can’t have a rabbi introduce ‘Jesus loves me,’” he joked. “But I’ll speak to my board. It is my honor to be here and I hope we can grow this relationship to mend the needs of our community.”

Rabbi Myers noted that his congregation was currently studying Exodus. He spoke of slavery, of coming out of bondage, and the nature of freedom.

“If you’ve known only slavery, being free does not mean you have the skills to lead a free life,” he asked. “Working long hours for a cruel taskmaster with no hope of a bright future may teach you how not to treat others, but it does not prepare you for a life of freedom.”

“Are we really free today? Some of us may say our boss is a cruel taskmaster, some might be slaves to fashion, some of us worship at the altar of star athletes or celebrities, or the biggest car with the brightest bling,” he said.

“If we could strip away these trappings and temptations, what would remain? Would we all be the same? Would you see the color of their skin or the content of their character, as Dr. King so beautifully dreamed? Would you see their sexual orientation, or their moral orientation; their political leanings or their ethical leanings? I dream for a day when someone’s color, religion, sexual orientation or political party is irrelevant. When we are stripped of the externals that divide us, we can see the internals that unite us. There are those who wish to divide us, who spew hatred and act upon it. Our abhorrence of that unites us.”

Following the homily, Bush welcomed Maxine Plotkin of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, who tearfully presented a gift to Rabbi Myers and the Tree of Life congregation—a sculpture of a Star of David surrounding a Tree of Life, with the names of the 11 victims engraved on it.

It was designed by artist George Lampman of Edinboro, who has been living with his daughter in Pittsburgh for three years while receiving treatments.

“It was finished on Friday. I designed it based on another piece Maxine bought from me a year ago and gave it to the Tree of Life,” an emotional Lampman told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “That Saturday when I realized I had a piece of art in the synagogue and I couldn’t believe what was going on. So I started think of a new way of expressing it.”