Americans United’s legal work to protect church-state separation is about to get a big boost thanks to the daughter of a longtime AU activist who died in September 2011. Jamileh Schwartzbart Pott has made a generous donation to create the Harry and Mary Schwartzbart Legal Fund, which will support critical priorities in AU’s Legal Department, such as staff training and litigation expenses.
I was especially pleased to hear about the fund, which will be used over a 10-year period, because I know how much it would have pleased Harry. Although not a lawyer himself, Harry had a special interest in legal issues and admired the work attorneys do.
A California transplant, Harry spent his career working for Rockwell as an engineer and a metallurgist. In retirement, Harry, with the assistance of his wife Mary, made AU’s San Fernando Valley Chapter in the Los Angeles area his full-time project. He served as chapter president, then as an all-purpose volunteer. Under Harry’s careful eye, the chapter prospered.
When Harry died at age 88, I wrote a piece for AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog fondly recalling my interactions with him through the chapter, which hosted me as a speaker in 2007. I’ll never forget how surprised we were to discover that we shared something in common: Both of us had been born and raised in the same city – Altoona, Pa. (His parents settled there from Ukraine in 1921.) 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.
Harry used old-school methods to boost the chapter’s work. He had a box containing notecards with contacts, and when he wanted to talk to someone, he reached for a phone, not email. (But Mary kept the information backed up on a computer, just in case.) Harry was also a big fan of one-on-one visits and regularly scheduled meetings with clergy to bring them into the Americans United fold.
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 also 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.
In my blog post about Harry, I said that our organization would feel his loss, and we do. But I also pointed out that Harry wouldn’t want us to sit around and feel sad. He’d tell us to get active: Join Americans United. Connect with local efforts. Seek clergy support. Reach out to leaders in secular communities. Write letters to the editor. Communicate with your elected officials.
Harry wanted us all to speak up, boldly and proudly, for the church-state wall. He knew that separation of church and state is the cornerstone of our religious and philosophical freedom. He wanted us to give it a full embrace and never hesitate to leap to its defense against its detractors.
Thanks to Jamileh’s generous gift, Harry’s spirit will live on in the legal work of Americans United for many years to come.
“I’m very grateful to AU for creating this special fund in my parents’ names, dedicated specifically to AU’s legal efforts,” Jamileh said. “It started as a vague dream on my part, and everyone at AU worked so caringly to make it come true. Thanks to the entire AU team for this, and for your continual invaluable work and commitment. Yes, Harry would definitely approve!”