PITTSBURGH — A member of the Gateway School Board outside Pittsburgh, who was accused last week of making anti-Semitic comments to Rabbi Barbara Symons, spiritual leader of Temple David of Monroeville, has apologized after initially refusing to do so.
Steve O’Donnell spoke to Symons by phone on Monday, telling her he was sorry for making comments that she, and others, interpreted as anti-Semitic. Those comments included asking Symons twice, “Do you know you have a thing on your head?” and addressing her as “Barb” rather than calling her “rabbi” following a zoning meeting several weeks ago.
Symons wrote a letter to O’Donnell criticizing him for those comments, to which he did not respond. Then, at a school board meeting last Thursday, Rev. Dr. David Morse of the Monroeville Interfaith Ministerium publicly read a letter from the organization chiding O’Donnell for those comments as well as his failure to apologize. O’Donnell responded to that criticism in a tirade captured on video in which he steadfastly refused to apologize, said he was being “bullied,” and twice told the rabbi: “And the only thing I can assume in respect to your letter is that you judge yourself to be superior to me. Perhaps it’s because you’re a Jew.”
On Friday, O’Donnell announced his resignation from the school board — on which he has served for the past six years — but said it is unrelated to the criticism he received for his comments regarding the rabbi. Rather, he said, he resigned because he and his wife are moving to the city of Pittsburgh. Also on Friday, O’Donnell gave interviews to local media defending the comments he made to Symons, including a televised interview on WTAE in which he said he was not obliged to address Symons as “rabbi,” and denying that he is an anti-Semite.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council condemned O’Donnell’s remarks.
“We are appalled by the actions of Steve O’Donnell, who has since resigned from the board,” the CRC said in a prepared statement. “On separate occasions Mr. O’Donnell mocked the rabbi’s yarmulke, declined to refer to her as ‘rabbi,’ and suggested that she felt superior to him because she is Jewish. When asked to apologize, O’Donnell refused and insisted that Rabbi Symons owed him an apology.”
On Saturday, O’Donnell left a voicemail message for Symons wishing to apologize.
In a phone interview on Monday, the now-retired school board member said that the comments he made to Symons regarding her kippah at the zoning meeting were intended to “lighten things” after what had been a “contentious meeting.” But instead, those comments went “horribly wrong.”
“I didn’t know she took umbrage to that until I received her letter on March 13,” said O’Donnell, a former social worker and politician who ran as the Democratic candidate for District 18 of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 2008. “I was hurt first, then angry. I have never been accused of being anti-Semitic. I didn’t know how to respond to that letter.”
O’Donnell acknowledged that his reaction to being publicly criticized by the ministerium at the school board meeting was “strong, unkind and inappropriate. That response was generated out of anger.”
But sometime after that meeting, O’Donnell reflected on his comments to Symons and concluded that “it really didn’t matter what my intention was, but how it was perceived — and it was perceived as a slight. I knew I had to man up and apologize. I made a mistake, and it was compounded at the [school board] meeting.”
O’Donnell was finally able to connect with Symons on Monday.
“He was contrite,” Symons said. “He apologized and said he would take other steps to publicly apologize.”
His apology, she said, “starts to sew up the tear in our community but does not go back to where our community had been.”
Although O’Donnell is working on making amends for his actions, the incident has nonetheless prompted one community member, calling himself “John Doe,” to send the following message to Symons via email last Saturday:
“If what I read in the paper is correct … Rabbi Babs is a malignant force for discord in the community. What an overly sensitive POS she seems to be. … I must say that, since reading the story of her misplaced outrage (and that of the so-called ‘ministerium’), my whole outlook on people like her has changed. I am certainly not a Holocaust denier, but I can see more clearly the reasons people perpetrated it. Having recently seen ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ I can understand much better the Russian desire to be rid of the troublemakers.”
It is “sad,” Symons said, that “once words go out they cannot be taken back and one of the effects is to inspire emails like the one I received on Saturday.”
On the other hand, Symons praised the backing she has received from the ministerium, which she described as “not only comforting, but reflective of the relationships we built,” and from many community members who left supportive comments on Facebook.
“We commend the Monroeville Interfaith Ministerium for speaking out against anti-Semitism and supporting Rabbi Symons, president of the ministerium,” said the CRC statement. “We are appreciative of Rev. Dr. David Morse, a member of the ministerium, who stated to the board of school directors: ‘An insult to any one of our religions is an insult to all of our religious faiths.’”
O’Donnell acknowledged that “words have consequences,” and said that he sent a letter of apology to the school board, which he hopes will be read publicly.
“This is not who I am,” O’Donnell said. “I created a mess and I have to clean it up.”
Toby Tabachnick writes for the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.