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When Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue needed someone to lead its business in the aftermath of the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, they called on Bill O'Rourke '70, who relied on his Catholic faith, Jesuit education, and a career full of lessons in integrity and ethics to serve a community in need.

The Ecumenical Approach

How An Irish Catholic Alumnus Combined Integrity, Ethics and Faith to Serve a Jewish Community in Need

By Mike Scanlan ’06 

 

On the first anniversary of the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, an Irish Catholic stood in front of a Jewish congregation reciting a Hebrew prayer at the end of a Shabbat service.

The story of how Bill O’Rourke ’70 got there would later be described as “divine intervention.”

Two months after reciting that prayer, he sat in an unpretentious office in his home north of the city looking at a black yarmulke with the words “Stronger Than Hate” stitched next to a Pittsburgh Steelers symbol. A Star of David replaced the yellow steelmark.

Bill O’Rourke sits at the desk in his home office

Bill O’Rourke sits at the desk in his home office north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

O’Rourke is comfortable telling his story, but he never makes it about himself.

“I was very fortunate to have people teach me the difference between right and wrong,” he says, thinking back to his childhood with a smile. “That started with my parents.”

He talks about the day when the owner of the local sports store dropped off a set of golf clubs for his father, a widely-respected coach and city recreation director in Munhall, Pa.

“Give these to your dad,” the man said, before driving off.

He brought the clubs to his dad, who promptly loaded Bill and the new irons into the car and returned them to the store.

“Dad said, ‘he gave me those because I do business at the store as recreation director. I didn’t pay for these and I don’t take things for free.’ I’d like to think I reflect the integrity he had in life,” O’Rourke adds.

It was the first of many lessons to leave an indelible mark on O’Rourke. Coaches, Boy Scout leaders, and his experience in parochial schools and Bishop Boyle High School also made an impression on him in his youth.

“I’ve had a wonderful experience in the Catholic Church,” he adds, recalling his time as an altar boy.

O’Rourke’s evolution as a man and a leader began to take flight at John Carroll University.

“I did a lot of growing up at JCU,” he says. “It’s where I learned to think. You become a contributing member of society.”

He credits a Jesuit education, notably his philosophy and theology courses, for helping him grow as an ethical person. In the late 1960s, a class on the religions of the world prepared him for one of his greatest challenges more than 50 years later. 

I did a lot of growing up at JCU. It’s where I learned to think. You become a contributing member of society.

Joe Perry ’70 met O’Rourke on the third floor of Dolan Hall in 1966. They were fast friends, pledging Alpha Kappa Psi together, playing intramurals and eating dinner every night.

“He always came up with good ideas,” says Perry, who grew up outside of Youngstown. “He was always involved in different aspects of peoples’ lives and their struggles. He always wanted to help.”

Perry, now a retired defense contractor living on Florida’s Space Coast, continued, “Bill’s been so successful, but he exerts such humility. He doesn’t pat himself on the back. He goes beyond an ethical approach. It’s a human approach.”

After graduation, O’Rourke became an officer in the U.S. Army following his participation in ROTC on campus. After being discharged, he returned to Pittsburgh for a job at U.S. Steel and started law school at Duquesne. He joined Alcoa in 1975 as a patent attorney, a decision that would shape his career and cement a set of values that would transcend business, faith, and service.

He met Alcoa’s CEO Paul O’Neill – the eventual U.S. Secretary of the Treasury – and quickly recognized him as an “enlightened leader.”

“Paul didn’t teach me the difference between right and wrong,” O’Rourke says. “He taught me the difference between right and more right. That’s what you need in life. You need to look at not just being a good person, but being a virtuous person. Go beyond good.”

O’Rourke ascended to a series of leadership roles across multiple divisions at Alcoa: patent counsel, VP of procurement, VP of global business services, corporate auditor, chief information officer, VP of environment, health and safety, and president of Alcoa-Russia. As his responsibilities grew, so did the need for ethical decision making at the $34 billion global manufacturer.

“I’m energized by the amount of good businesses can bring to the world when leaders are committed to do the right thing,” he writes in The Business Ethics Field Guide, a book he co-wrote with Brigham Young University (BYU) Professors Brad Agle and Aaron Miller.

Agle was a professor at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) when he met O’Rourke in 2000. For the next five years, O’Rourke served as a guest lecturer in Agle’s business ethics classes.

“Ethical leadership is about two things: having your heart right and having skill,” Agle said. “You have to understand the issues and be practiced in how you deal with those issues. Bill O’Rourke is the epitome of a skillful, ethical leader. I’m a better person because of my relationship with Bill.”

Bill O’Rourke in a reflective moment at Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Bill O’Rourke in a reflective moment at Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Agle, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, moved to Brigham Young University in 2009. He lamented losing his best guest speaker, but O’Rourke agreed to fly to Utah to continue the relationship.

He chuckled when asked how O’Rourke was received on campus.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is different from most religious denominations in how it chooses its leaders,” Agle began. “Our leaders don’t come up through a professional ministry. They are chosen from different professions. I remember when Bill would come to speak, he so impressed the students at BYU that I would often have them come to me and say, ‘He’ll be a general authority of the church some day.’ I would laugh and say, ‘He’d have to become a member first.’ Students couldn’t believe he wasn’t. I absolutely love that our students get to have this interaction with him to see that there is incredible good in other religious traditions.”

Many of the lessons that O’Rourke shared at Pitt, BYU and more than 20 college campuses, including six Jesuit institutions in the last year, revolve around his experience as president of Alcoa-Russia.

His decision to accept that role in 2004 came in a time of uncertainty. He received the job offer one year after his wife, Carol, died of cancer. After consulting with his children, Ryan and Heather, he decided it was the right time in his life for the challenge.

“Imagine that plane ride, the first trip into Russia,” he says, noting that even the CEO was surprised by his choice. “I know two Russian words – da and nyet. I’m heading into a culture I don’t know, a language I don’t know, a place I don’t know. There was fear there. So much unknown. It turned out alright.”

The decision sums up one of O’Rourke’s philosophies in life: when you come to a fork in the road, take it.

“You jump in the deep end,” he says. “Imagine when you first learned to swim. There was fear, but, boy, a lot of joy comes from it. It was a chance to make an impact and make things a little bit better in the process.”

In a deep-seated culture of corruption, O’Rourke stood out by example. He focused on safety at two manufacturing plants that averaged five industrial deaths per year for fifty years. He shunned a lavish penthouse office and moved with his leadership team into open, accessible cubicles. He refused to pay off the local authorities who pulled his car over to demand bribes. He called out blatant extortion in his factories.

His actions continued to cultivate an enduring reputation for ethical leadership. He explains the approach succinctly: “Integrity is the most important attribute of a true leader.”

Dave Lassman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, met O’Rourke in 2012 on the board of Sustainable Pittsburgh. Like Agle at Pitt and BYU, Lassman teaches leadership and business ethics. He jumped at the opportunity to have O’Rourke in his classroom.

“Bill has no ego at all,” Lassman says. “He’s incredibly bright and confident with the wonder and awe of a child. I think that’s part of his magic.”

Lassman and O’Rourke, who was retiring from Alcoa to focus on consulting, volunteering, and lecturing on ethics, began meeting for coffee on a monthly basis to share stories.

“Bill says we’re colleagues, but to me, he’s my mentor,” Lassman says.

Their relationship intensified in January 2019 after O’Rourke received a call from Sam Schachner, president of the Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation. He was asking O’Rourke to consider becoming the interim executive director for the synagogue.

Three months earlier, Tree of Life, which housed three separate congregations—Tree of Life, New Light, and Dor Hadash—became global news when a gunman entered the building during Shabbat services, killing 11 congregants and wounding seven people in the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history. Each congregation lost members during the shooting.

Lassman knew all too well how the attack shook the Jewish community and Pittsburgh to its core. His great-grandfather founded a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 1870. He’s on the board of the Jewish Family and Community Services, a provider of social services in Greater Pittsburgh that played a huge role in the response to the Tree of Life massacre.

“I knew he was the perfect choice,” Lassman says. “I said to him, ‘you’re incredibly empathic, you’re a leader, you have legal smarts. It will be difficult. You have a community that is suffering. Their finances are in jeopardy, but you can help them move forward. You are the complete package. You can’t say no.’”

He continued, “I told the board at Tree of Life that it was an advantage that Bill isn’t Jewish. He has no politics to play. He’ll be objective in an emotionally charged situation.”

Once again, O’Rourke took the fork in the road. He accepted the challenge. The business office of the Tree of Life moved one mile down the street to Rodof Shalom, a separate Jewish synagogue that offered the congregations a place to conduct services and offices for business.

Tree of Life synagogue

A memorial for the victims at the front door of Tree of Life synagogue, now closed to the public.

It was busy, even hectic, at the beginning. There were insurance claims to process for damages and business interruption. Tens of millions of dollars of donations that needed to be recorded, acknowledged, kept in a bank account, and distributed according to donor intent. Sometimes, he said, the offices just needed to be cleaned.

“Tree of Life’s mail was held for two-and-a-half weeks until we provided a new address,” he says. “The first time it was delivered to Rodof Shalom, there were 24,000 pieces of mail.”

He was called on to receive gifts from mourners traveling to Pittsburgh to pay their respects. He served as liaison for insurance officials and government officials, including presidential candidates, touring the destruction inside Tree of Life.

“You can imagine the impact of hundreds of bullet holes, some through prayer books, and the description of the 11 deaths and the wounded,” he says. “It was rather somber. The synagogue is still not a prayerful place.”

Several months into the job, O’Rourke’s accompanied Barry Werber, a survivor of the massacre, who toured the building with his wife and therapist to gain closure. Werber recounted the scene for O’Rourke. His friend Cecil Rosenthal was shot and fell down the steps. Werber hid in a closet with Melvin Wax, who opened the door only to be shot dead by the gunman.

“For me to be able see that anti-Semitism and relive it through his eyes, it was an experience that not too many people get,” O’Rourke said.

He arranged visits for students from Parkland, Fla, as well as Pastor Eric Manning and eight members of the Mother Emanuel AME Church of Charleston. He met regularly with Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, a survivor of the attack who made the first call to 911, and the board and staff of Tree of Life.

In Rabbi Myers, O’Rourke saw another enlightened leader.

“He taught me courage,” O’Rourke says. “He’s a wonderful man, a holy man. He didn’t ask for this. It turns out, he was the right man at the right place at the right time. He is a healer. He won’t say the word ‘hate.’ He talks about hope and healing.”

While the community mourned, O’Rourke worked silently behind the scenes. He started a to-do list on a 16 x 24 sheet of paper. Color-coded ink noted the names of the victims, members of the Jewish community he needed to meet, accounting tasks to manage, even Hebrew words and phrases that he overheard and wanted to understand.

Bill O’Rourke walks on the sidewalk outside of Tree of Life synagogue

Bill O’Rourke walks on the sidewalk outside of Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he served as interim executive director in 2019.

“Bill O'Rourke came to the Tree of Life at a time that can only be described as ‘divine intervention,’” said Rabbi Myers. “There was no one to turn to who had the skill sets necessary to manage such a crisis, but Bill stepped in, to paraphrase him, ‘to give back to the community.’ His wisdom and experiences gave back in ways that we will never be able to measure, and we will remain eternally grateful for his professionalism, warmth and friendship, which continues to this day.”

Once, O’Rourke represented the Jewish community at a meeting in the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh that focused on safety and security.

“The Muslims had been very helpful and generous when the Tree of Life shooting occurred,” he said. “So, this Irish Catholic was sitting in the mosque with my shoes off, wearing a yarmulke, talking for the Jews with the Muslims. It doesn’t get more ecumenical than that.”

A year after the massacre, in the midst of ceremonies honoring the victims, Rabbi Myers invited O’Rourke to read a prayer at the end of the Shabbat service.

With his Stronger Than Hate yarmulke adorning his head, O’Rourke delivered the following prayer, a Hebrew blessing for the coming month:

“May it be your will, our God and God of our ancestors, to reawaken in us joy and blessing in the month ahead. Grant us a long life, a peaceful life with goodness and blessing, sustenance and physical vitality; a life of reverence and piety, a life free from shame and reproach, a life of abundance and honor, a reverent life guided by the love of Your words, a life in which our worthy aspirations will be fulfilled. Amen.”

“Isn’t that special?” O’Rourke said, conjuring the childlike wonder his friend Dave Lassman mentioned. “What an honor.”

Bill O’Rourke poses for a photo outside of Tree of Life synagogue

The Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha building remains closed as officials and congregants determine the best way to proceed with the property. Inspired by the outpouring of kindness from people around the world, the congregations launched #HeartsTogether: The Art of Rebuilding, a campaign to beautify the outside of the building with uplifting artwork from student artists.

John Carroll University honors the lives of those who died.

Joyce Fienberg, 75
Richard Gottfried, 65

Rose Mallinger, 97
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
Cecil Rosenthal, 59
David Rosenthal, 59
Bernice Simon, 84
Sylvan Simon, 86
Daniel Stein, 71
Melvin Wax, 88
Irving Younger, 69