New York native Barry Morrison graduated from Brooklyn College in 1970, and then he spent three years teaching before moving on to the B’nai B’rith social-service agency.
Morrison found both jobs fulfilling, in a way, but he sensed another calling.
“I was trying to find my niche,” he said.
At the time, B’nai B’rith was the parent agency of the Anti-Defamation League, a non-partisan, non-profit Jewish civil-rights and human-relations organization that, among other things, fights anti-Semitism.
In 1979, Morrison took a job as assistant director of the ADL’s office in northern New Jersey. He’s been with the ADL ever since, spending most of the last 32 years as director of the Philadelphia office.
The 62-year-old Morrison has certainly found his niche.
“I’m very enthusiastic,” he said of his day-to-day chores. “I’ve never been burned out by this work.”
Morrison, who lives in Montgomery County, spent a year in North Jersey before taking over as director of ADL’s Plain States Region. For about 18 months, he worked out of the agency’s office in Omaha, Neb.
BACK TO PHILLY FOR GOOD
In 1981, he arrived in Philadelphia for what would be the first of two stints as director. Seven and a half years into his tenure, he moved to the ADL’s Chicago office. He returned to our town in 1992 and has been here ever since.
“The ADL has been a wonderful journey,” he said during a recent interview at his Center City office.
Today, the ADL is an independent organization. It was founded nationally in 1913 and has had a Philadelphia office for more than a half-century.
In all, there are 30 offices in the United States and abroad, including Israel, Russia and Italy. Abraham Foxman is the longtime national director.
The local office’s territory includes Delaware and eastern Pennsylvania, stretching as far west as State College.
Ten people work in the Philadelphia office, located at 15th and
Market streets. Volunteers and interns are also welcome. Their tasks include education, investigative research, intake and fund-raising.
A FULL AGENDA
The Morrison-led office weighs in on political issues, such as stating its support for the repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and its opposition to a proposed state law that would require voters to show photo identification at polling places.
At the city level, the ADL was critical of Latrice Bryant, an aide to City Councilman Wilson Goode Jr., who held up signs in Council that read “Fox 29 are racist” and “Jeff Cole KKK” after the local station’s news program ran an unflattering piece on Bryant and Goode in 2008.
The local ADL also engaged in battles with Urban Outfitters for what it believed to be offensive slogans on T-shirts. One read, “New Mexico, cleaner than regular Mexico.” Another read, “Everyone loves a Jewish girl” and included dollar signs and shopping bags.
Morrison recalls perhaps the two highest-profile local cases over the years. In one instance, the ADL wrote a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, pointing out what it believed were anti-Jewish comments by radio host Mary Mason and listeners following the dismissal of charges against a Main Line doctor for performing an illegal abortion.
TAKING A STAND
In 1997, the ADL joined numerous other Jewish organizations in condemning then-Mayor Ed Rendell for appearing with Louis Farrakhan at a church service. The controversial and divisive Nation of Islam leader was threatening to march through racially tense Grays Ferry.
Morrison said it was “nauseating” watching Rendell and Farrakhan singing We Shall Overcome.
In Morrison’s view, Rendell’s actions gave Farrakhan legitimacy. Later, then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley appeared in public with Farrakhan.
“That sticks in my mind as a very unfortunate episode,” Morrison said of Rendell’s embrace of Farrakhan.
On a more national level, Morrison had an issue with Oprah Winfrey when he was working in Chicago.
In 1989, Winfrey hosted an episode on Satanic cult murders in Mexico, and the discussion crossed the line, in the opinion of Morrison and other Jewish leaders, when a woman spoke about witnessing the sacrifice of children by Jewish families.
Morrison met with Winfrey, who was eager to learn why people were offended.
“Oprah was most gracious,” he said.
In the end, Morrison and Jewish leaders did not demand that Winfrey apologize, in part because of fear that it would extend the stereotype that Jews control the media. Instead, Winfrey and the Jewish leaders issued a joint statement.
Morrison’s job includes monitoring the activities of hate groups and communicating with the FBI and police department on any threats. At the same time, he’s charged with challenging popular figures such as Rendell in Philadelphia and Winfrey in Chicago when he believes they are wrong.
“On balance, I think that we’ve used good judgment and minimized harm,” he said of the ADL’s overall response.
The ADL also works a lot behind the scenes.
The agency sponsors Bearing Witness, an intensive, weeklong professional development workshop for Catholic educators. The course, now in its fifth year, includes discussions on ways to teach about the Holocaust and the history of anti-Semitism, along with celebrating the diversity of today.
Perhaps that is one reason a nun, who took a vow of poverty, offered a modest $10 contribution.
“That was very gratifying. It meant a lot to us and was reassuring to us — to see that what we’re doing is good,” Morrison said.
Since 2001, the local ADL has sponsored No Place for Hate, a program that is in 160 schools and community settings. The goals include responding to and preventing bullying and acts of hate while working to build respect.
Among the participants are Archbishop Ryan High School, Gen. Harry LaBrum Middle School and the St. Martha, Benjamin Franklin, Gilbert Spruance and Joseph J. Greenberg elementary schools.
“It’s a vehicle and a tool that helps people meet the challenges of diversity,” Morrison said.
Morrison, who is married with three grown children, has plenty of interests outside his job. He likes to exercise, ride a bicycle, walk, read, watch movies, travel and work in the garden.
Still, it’s working at the ADL that has defined his adult life, at least publicly, and he believes the agency has been consistent in its mission.
“We don’t discriminate,” he said. “If you are a victim, we will defend you. If you are a perpetrator, we’ll find a way to challenge you.” ••
For more information on the Anti-Defamation League, call 215-568-2223 or visit www.adl.org
Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215-354-3034 or firstname.lastname@example.org