I do a lot of speaking for Americans United and have had some wonderful experiences on the road addressing AU chapters and other groups.
One event sticks out. It took place near Los Angeles and was sponsored by AU’s San Fernando Valley Chapter. We had a huge crowd on hand, representing a diverse range of people from different backgrounds. Who had pulled this impressive crowd together?
It turned out that the mastermind behind it all was a gentleman named Harry Schwartzbart. Well past retirement age, Harry essentially took on the chapter as a full-time project. Under his tutelage, it became Americans United’s largest local unit.
As we got to talking, Harry and I discovered that we shared something in common: Both of us had been born and raised in the same city – Altoona, Pa. We laughed as we discussed the town’s landmarks and reflected on why we each chose to flee the Rust Belt for opportunities elsewhere – and why we each developed a commitment to separation of church and state.
What amazed me about Harry’s chapter is that he did all of the work the old-fashioned way. No fan of computers, Harry kept a contact list on file cards. When he wanted to reach someone, Harry didn’t bother with email. He just picked up the phone.
Harry made a point to visit local clergy and try to enlist them to AU’s cause. In 2007, the Jewish Journal profiled Harry and noted his amazing energy: “He makes about 2,000 phone calls a year. He speaks two or three times a month at various houses of worship within a 100-mile radius of his Chatsworth home. And he books lunch or dinner engagements with any clergy member of any faith who will give him 90 minutes of his undivided attention. To date, he counts more than 500 meals with individual priests, rabbis and ministers.” (With characteristic bluntness, Harry told the Journal he got active in AU in 1994 because TV preacher Pat Roberson was “scaring the hell” out of him.)
Harry was generous with his time. When other AU chapter leaders wanted to know how to build an effective local organization, we told them to call Harry. He mentored so many activists it’s impossible to count them all.
Yesterday we got word that Harry passed away. It happened rather suddenly. Harry has been having heart trouble and was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm. He planned to have surgery, but, unfortunately, he passed away before that could happen. Harry was 88 and was lively right up until the end.
Our organization feels this loss deeply, and we extend our condolences to Harry’s family and his wide circle of friends. I know we’ll be asked what people can do to honor Harry’s memory. The answer to that is to do what Harry did: Become an activist for separation of church and state. Join Americans United. Get active in a local chapter. Seek clergy support. Write letters to the editor. Communicate with your elected officials.
In short, stand up, boldly and proudly, for the church-state wall. Separation of church and state is the cornerstone of our religious and philosophical freedom. We should embrace it and never hesitate to leap to its defense against its detractors.
Harry would approve.