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Won’t you be my (Jewish) neighbour?

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Developing a column can be a fascinating process. A writer may have a particular vision in mind before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), but the final result could end up being completely different.

That’s what happened to me. I fully intended to write about either U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration or the federal Tory leadership race and finally settled on, of all things, Mister Rogers and the Jews. Go figure. 

I came across a piece in the Jewish Chronicle (distributed in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia) about Pittsburgh synagogue Rodef Shalom Congregation’s decision to posthumously award the late children’s entertainer and Presbyterian minister with its 2014 Pursuer of Peace Award. According to then-executive editor, Lee Chottiner, this biannual honour is bestowed “upon an individual from the Greater Pittsburgh community whose work and commitment contributes to the pursuit of peace through interfaith understanding and humanitarianism.”

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Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, was the award’s third recipient, preceded by Bishop David Zubik (Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh) and Bill Strickland (president and CEO, Manchester Bidwell Corporation). It was accepted by Rogers’ widow, Joanne. 

Rodef Shalom’s Rabbi Aaron Bisno told the Chronicle, “When you hear his words, there is the most beautiful expression of peace. Fred Rogers speaks directly to each of us. There’s a saying in the Talmud: ‘Words from the heart go to the heart.’ And Mister Rogers spoke to our hearts.”

Here’s another intriguing component: The synagogue is located across the street from WQED, “the Pittsburgh public television station that produced Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for years.” Rabbi Bisno has a “cardigan sweater and loafers in his study and likes to wear them on cold or rainy days,” much like Rogers did on TV. When he puts them on, he said, “I think of Mr. Rogers and how privileged I feel to be a part of this neighbourhood and to have the opportunity to feel neighbourly.”

After reading this article, I wondered if Rogers had some sort of personal connection to Judaism.

I found three interesting tidbits of information in this regard:

First, the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning & Children’s Media has a short blurb about his book The Giving Box: Create a Tradition of Giving With Your Children (2000). It turns out that “like all of Fred’s work, The Giving Box has a spiritual basis. Fred was inspired by the Jewish tradition of the tzedakah box, which promotes saving and philanthropy.”

Second, there are several Jewish references in the 1977 prime-time special Christmastime with Mister Rogers. The Neighborhood Trolley rolls down the track with a double-sided banner: “Merry Christmas” on one side, and “Happy Chanukah” on the other. He briefly talks about the latter holiday and even spins a dreidel.

Third, Hedda Sherapan, one of the Fred Rogers Company’s longest-serving members, is Jewish. (Her grandfather was a Holocaust survivor.) She started as an assistant director for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1966, and later became associate producer. Rogers convinced her to take a master’s degree in child development. She eventually became director of early childhood initiatives, and is currently a curriculum consultant for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on PBS Kids.

Here’s how Sherapan described Rogers last October: “I had such great respect for his wisdom and his commitment to serve children and families in an authentic and meaningful way – so I wanted to do my very best. I learned a lot from stretching myself to always be better… and I learned a lot from him because he always elevated whatever writing I did.”

It’s no secret that Rogers viewed people from different walks of life as God’s children. He had no time or patience for prejudice. Yet, it was still interesting to discover, in a column I didn’t originally intend to write, the great respect he had for the Jewish community.

Mister Rogers was a good neighbour, indeed.