Have you heard of the Hasidic rabbi who offered prayer at a Catholic college to mark the inauguration of its black Protestant president?
No, this is not the setting for a joke. Rather, it’s the true story of a deep friendship — the kind that’s common in Pittsburgh, where close neighborhoods, large college communities, and a willingness to accept others create an opportunity for valuable bonds between those who might otherwise be considered strange bedfellows.
On March 25, Kathy W. Humphrey was inaugurated as the 11th president of Carlow University, a private Catholic university founded by the Sisters of Mercy. Chabad House on campus Rabbi Shmuel Weinstein gave the blessing during the ceremony.
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Weinstein and his wife, Sara, met Humphrey more than 10 years ago when she was hired as dean of students at the University of Pittsburgh; she later became vice-chancellor there.
“We invited her to Chabad House for a Shabbat meal,” recalls Sara Weinstein. “It’s very memorable because it was a Friday night in February and there was a snow storm. She ended up having to walk through the snow to our house after parking.
This story is emblematic of Humphrey and a testament to her dedication to the students she represents, Sara Weinstein added.
Perhaps more surprising than the budding friendship that began that night was the question Humphrey asked as he left, “Could I have a Shabbat meal at my house and host Chabad and students?” Do you want to come?”
In fact, Humphrey said she’s hosted many Shabbat dinners in the years since that first meal at the Weinsteins’ and enjoyed every one of them.
“To the point where I know the melodies,” she said. “It’s because of the connection, the relationship and how important it is. My life has been enhanced and my commitment to being a voice in places where they aren’t is something I continue to engage with because I’ve learned so much. The only way to be a voice is to stand up when others can’t speak.
The bond between the Weinsteins and Humphrey was further strengthened when the Chabad couple coordinated a trip to Israel in 2018 for Pitt’s administration. It was a trip that proved significant for Humphrey.
“It’s the seat of all our religions,” she says. “We had Shabbat dinner at a woman’s house, and it was Ramadan. I could hear people praying. There was a buzz around the city of prayer. It was the most incredible experience I have ever had in my life, to see this convergence of faith.
The quorum president said that although she did not understand the language, she knew that God heard every word.
Shmuel Weinstein called Humphrey a “trailblazer” during her time at Pitt, saying she encouraged people while there and worked to better understand different communities to break down stereotypes.
This attitude was on full display during Humphrey’s inauguration at Carlow University and testified to the extent of the relationships she built in the city. Speakers included not only Weinstein, but Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, President of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, Sister Patricia McDermott, and Pastor Brian Edmonds, Senior Pastor of the Church of Macedonia in Pittsburgh.
The rabbi’s remarks concluded the ceremony.
“I was the last person of many, and that put me in between people sitting in their seats and going for a
reception on a Friday afternoon,” the rabbi said with a laugh.
As a result, Weinstein realized two things: his remarks should be brief and he should grab the attention of the crowd.
The rabbi said he came on stage with his short speech on a ream of paper, which he placed on the lectern with great panache.
Weinstein told the crowd, “‘I have a lot to say about Kathy,'” he said. “Everyone had a nervous look on their face.” The tension erupted when he let the crowd in on the joke and removed the stack of paper, revealing his short two-minute speech.
The rabbi spoke about the importance of the Torah in Jewish life and the spiritual significance of the numbers 8 and 11 in Jewish tradition – Humphrey is the university’s 11th president.
Speaking as a friend, Weinstein said during his speech: “Kathy, everyone who knows you understands that you exhibit these same traits – you love peace and you love people.”
For Humphrey, the blending of various faiths and traditions was not unusual or even special, she said. Instead, she recalled the words Bishop David Zubik had spoken to her when, invited over dinner to give grace, she remarked that she was unfamiliar with Catholic grace.
“He said, ‘Kathy, all words go to God,'” she recalls. “It’s really where I believe I am and the very nature of where we are as a university. The greatest commandment is that we love the Lord. The second is that I love my neighbor as myself. I hope what we demonstrate is just that – you don’t like your neighbor from a distance. You embrace and love your neighbour.PJC
David Rullo can be contacted at [email protected]