Paul Rockower, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix, was caught by surprise at Tuesday’s annual meeting of the Arizona Faith Network, “Hope, Healing and Humanity.”
Rockower believed he was merely a passive participant. He was mistaken. He had just finished listening to the virtual keynote presentation by Arizona State University Professor Neal Lester, when he heard Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman speak his name.
He suddenly snapped to attention when he heard her announce him as the winner of AFN’s Arizona Peacemaker in Action Award, he said.
“I was overwhelmed by the support, and once I heard the warm words with my name attached I paid full attention,” Rockower said.
Sharfman is AFN’s vice president and member-at large, as well as the spiritual leader of Congregation Kehillah.
Announcing the award, she told the meeting participants that “peace, true peace, is not only the absence of war, but a state of harmony and wholeness” and Rockower is someone who is always working towards communal harmony.
Almost as proof of her point, while she was giving him the award, Rockower was busy writing emails and reaching out to community members about two antisemitic incidents that happened within days of each other.
He was still responding to questions about a woman’s antisemitic screed at a board meeting of the Chandler Unified School District on Oct. 27, while a second incident’s details were unfolding. On Nov.1, antisemitic posters were discovered at Arizona State University’s Hassayampa Academic Village. They were signed “Happy Halloween from the ASU College Republicans United!” The group denies involvement and Rockower was continuing to manage communication between various community groups the next day while trying to be as present as possible for the AFN event.
“It’s already been a long week, and it’s only Tuesday,” Rockower told Jewish News on Nov. 2.
Sharfman was impressed that Rockower used the moment to inform participants what was happening and to impress upon them the importance of the network’s work and support during moments like this.
“The Israeli ambassador who trained me said never to let an opportunity to share your message go by,” Rockower told Jewish News. “And this is part of it: sharing the vulnerability the Jewish community faces with those who support us, because their support sustains us.”
Rockower, whom Sharfman called “a beloved member of the network” and someone who “would be reluctant to toot his own horn,” is being honored for his ability to connect disparate people in Greater Phoenix. That’s AFN’s quintessential mission.
Rev. Katie Sexton-Wood, AFN’s executive director, explained that the award is for those “who help to build peace amongst Arizona communities,” and Rockower is someone who personifies the core values of AFN because of his work with “interfaith relationship building and social justice.”
Every nominee for the award must meet five criteria: A nominee’s peacemaking must be fueled by personal religious or spiritual beliefs; a nominee must be local because the work will directly benefit communities in Arizona; a nominee’s work must uphold the practice of nonviolent resistance; a nominee must promote well-being and equity among Arizonans; and a nominee must emulate cooperation across all communities no matter the racial, economic, religious and social divisions in order to make those communities better.
Sharfman said Rockower meets those criteria and more.
“According to Jewish tradition every person has been created in the divine image, and seeing people like that is how you start to make peace,” she said. “Paul looks at people that way.”
She added that Rockower “also brings a crazy and fantastic sense of humor, a gentle and loving hand, firmness when necessary, and the ability to find a path” to this important work.
Tim Eckstein, JCRC’s board chair, amplified that message and said, “Paul models every day what it is to be a peacemaker in action. He operates based on his appreciation that understanding and peace require long-term personal relationships and mutual respect. He spends the time to get to know people, to really hear what they have to say and to find areas of common interest and purpose.”
Rockower said he’s grateful for AFN, because “it’s a mechanism for connecting with different faith communities, and they’ve been so supportive of the Jewish community over the last few years as we’ve dealt with difficult things. And we do the same.”
Sharfman, too, has been an active member of the network for many years and said that it’s essential to know one’s neighbors and “to hear their stories and for them to get to know us and hear our stories,” and AFN is a conduit for that.
“If we can see each others’ humanity it is more difficult to hate,” she said.
As for Rockower and his award, Sharfman alluded to the words of Don Quixote about the madness of surrendering one’s dreams.
“Paul does not surrender dreams,” she said. “He envisions them and dedicates himself to turning those dreams of a better world into a reality, to see life as it should be, as it could be.” JN