November 2011 Church & State | Editorial

Americans United has labored for more than 60 years to defend the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state.

We are keenly aware, however, that we couldn’t do this important work without the help of people all over the country. Many support AU financially, but some go beyond that and become activists. They organize local chapters, mobilize other activists and clergy and speak up for church-state separation right in their own backyards.

Harry Schwartzbart was that kind of activist. Harry founded and, for many years, ran AU’s San Fernando Valley Chapter, near Los Angeles. A retired engineer, Harry dedicated countless volunteer hours to Americans United. His special project was visiting local clergy and working to enlist them in 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 Robertson 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, Harry was always ready to provide advice. He mentored so many activists it’s impossible to count them all.

Harry passed away on Sept. 22. He had been having heart trouble and was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm. He planned to have surgery, but, unfortunately, he died before that could happen. Harry was 88 and was lively right up until the end.

Americans United feels this loss deeply. But we also know that Harry wouldn’t want us to spend a lot of time mourning. Rather, he’d want us to get active. He’d prod us to keep working to defend church-state separation.

Not everyone can be as active as Harry was. Not everyone has the time or the phenomenal organizational skills that Harry had. But there are things we can all do: Join and support Americans United. Get active in a local AU chapter. Tell others about Americans United. Seek clergy support for church-state separation. 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.

That’s the best way to honor Harry’s memory.