Chabad of South Hills celebrates a quarter-century in Pittsburgh’s suburbs
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Silver anniversaryThe Rosenblums' roots in the South Hills continue to grow

Chabad of South Hills celebrates a quarter-century in Pittsburgh’s suburbs

"We want Judaism to be enriched in the world and we want more Jews to experience being Jewish."

Chabad of the South Hills has become part of the Jewish DNA of Pittsburgh’s southern communities through events like it’s annual gathering of men from all Jewish backgrounds during Sukkot. This year’s event was organized by Levi Rosenblum, Rabbi Mendy Rosenblum’s son, who now works with organization. (Photo provided by Chabad of South Hills)
Chabad of the South Hills has become part of the Jewish DNA of Pittsburgh’s southern communities through events like it’s annual gathering of men from all Jewish backgrounds during Sukkot. This year’s event was organized by Levi Rosenblum, Rabbi Mendy Rosenblum’s son, who now works with organization. (Photo provided by Chabad of South Hills)

When Rabbi Mendy Rosenblum and his wife, Batya, first decided to open Chabad of the South Hills, Steve Jobs was nine years from releasing the first iPhone; Michael Jordan hadn’t yet retired for a second time; Netflix had just started shipping DVDs to customers through the mail and “Titanic” was the hottest movie in the country.

“Ultimately,” the rabbi said, reflecting on what brought him to the South Hills, “God has a plan for everybody.”

Rosenblum said that after getting married and spending a year studying at a Kollel, he moved back to Pittsburgh intending to set up a Chabad center.

Where that center would be located, though, wasn’t as clear.

“Growing up in Squirrel Hill, that was my whole world,” he said. “Monroeville could have been next to Mt. Lebanon for all I knew.”

The couple spent the next three years in Squirrel Hill working. Rosenblum was a sort of “traveling rabbi,” visiting various locations and demonstrating Jewish traditions, such as matzah-making or selling outdoor menorahs for public displays. His wife worked at the Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh while serving as matriarch to a growing family.

All the while, Rosenblum was researching what communities might be best served by a new, suburban Chabad house. Eventually, he narrowed his search to two neighborhoods: Fox Chapel or Mt. Lebanon.

Then, while hosting an event at the Children’s Museum, a group of families expressed interest in having a Chabad center in the South Hills.

The fateful die was cast and, by 1998, a decision was made.

“We set up a meeting with that group and a few others and, literally, we moved out here [the South Hills],” he said. “We knew three or four families. No one said they would fund us or give us anything. It was a dream.”

Showing what Mary Tyler Moore’s Lou Grant would call “spunk,” the Rosenblums started offering Shabbos and holiday services in their basement. They also started a Hebrew school — which Rosenblum recognized might have made Temple Emanuel of South Hills and Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, the two established congregations in the area, feel anxious.

“The first thing I did was go and visit Rabbi Mark Mahler [of Temple Emanuel] and Rabbi Neal Scheindlin [of Beth El] and talk with them, and tell them our goal wasn’t to compete, and that I thought it would be beneficial for the whole community,” Rosenblum said.

A relationship was born from those initial conversations and, Rosenblum said, the three rabbis began studying together and continued to do so for several years.

The first year, Rosenblum said, Pittsburgh’s first suburban Chabad center rented a small office on Cedar Boulevard.

“We had 10 kids in our Hebrew school and a nice little shul in our basement with kiddush in our dining room,” he said. “It was a special year.”

Realizing the need to get out of the basement, Rosenblum next rented a place on North Wren Drive, sharing space with a dermatologist.

Despite Chabad having a different set-up than most congregations — no membership dues, an open policy on attending programs and events — the center continued to grow.

In 2002, Rosenblum again moved to a larger location at the Bower Hill Swim Club. Chabad stayed in that space until 2007 when it moved to its present location on McFarland Road.

Rebbetzin Batya Rosenblum said she grew up with the idea of spreading the joy of Judaism but was nervous when her husband first approached her with the idea of moving to the suburbs.

“In Squirrel Hill, you have everything in walking distance,” she said. “With my first son, I was able to put him in a stroller and go to Giant Eagle or wherever I needed. It [the South Hills] was definitely more spread out than Squirrel Hill and further from the epicenter of Jewish life.”

Realizing that other Chabad emissaries were living in conditions further from Jewish community centers, Batya Rosenblum knew the South Hills presented an opportunity, especially since she could still send her children to the Yeshiva School.

In the early years, she said, she started a Mommy and Me program hosted in people’s homes and backyards.

She and her husband supported each other in the center’s nascent days and continue to do so, she said.

Chabad of the South Hills often takes its messages of Judaism and community outside of its walls. Mussie Rosenblum (left) has worked as part of the center’s team for years. (Photo provided by Chabad of South Hills)

“If I’m having a woman’s event, he’s encouraging me and helping in any way possible, and it’s the same thing when he’s teaching a class,” she said.

The impact of the center in the community, she said, is apparent.

“When people see Jewish children walking around in the streets of the South Hills with a kippah and they see Jewish girls walking around in beautiful, modest clothes on Shabbat, that speaks louder than anything else,” she said. “It’s Jewish pride on display in the most beautiful way.”

David Friedlander moved to the South Hills in the mid-1980s from Squirrel Hill, where he had been a member of Congregation Poale Zedek, an Orthodox congregation. When he moved to the suburbs, he attended both Beth El and Temple Emanuel but wanted to find something closer to what he experienced growing up.

He said his wife, Cindy, told him of this little Orthodox shul she had found in the basement of a professional building near St. Clair Hospital.

“She said, ‘Dave, I found this place I think you’re going to be comfortable with.’ I thought, ‘I’m not really interested,’ but she said, ‘Give it a shot, you’ll really like Rabbi Rosenblum,’” he said. “We ended up going and it felt like home. To say I fell in love with it is an understatement.”

The Friedlanders became involved with the center, helping with various events over the years and taking courses offered by the rabbi and rebbetzin.

“I have to say, I love the guy,” Friedlander said, in reference to Rosenblum. “I really mean it — he’s a great guy.”

Susan Sofayov moved to the South Hills because of the Chabad center.

“We lived in Squirrel Hill, and I wanted to move to the suburbs,” she said. “My husband, who is Israeli, thought we were moving into the forest. We stopped at this old supermarket on Bower Hill Road and my husband met the rabbi. Once he knew there was an Orthodox rabbi and a Chabad center he said, ‘OK, we can move now.’”

Sofayov said that her family became very involved in Chabad, and her children attended Hebrew school there.

In fact, she said, her family sponsored the kitchen at the McFarland location.

“It was my son’s bar mitzvah, and we only had days to get it together,” she remembered. “It was really running around like crazy.”

Especially poignant for Sofayov was when a Torah was dedicated.

“We all got to finish a letter into the new Torah — that was a lot of fun,” she said.

While Rosenblum understands that some might see him as a pioneer, he prefers to think of himself as someone willing to take a calculated risk.

Over the years, he said, the risks he’s taken have made sense and he’s relied on the counsel of a strong board and good advisers.

The initial move, he said, felt like an adventure and was exhilarating. Over the years, Chabad of the South Hills has grown with the Chabad movement, offering programs as they’ve become available, like the popular Jewish Learning Institute courses.

The center, Rosenblum noted, has become part of the South Hills’ Jewish DNA and is supported by the community. As an example, last year, the center raised more than $150,000 in just 48 hours as part of its annual fundraiser.

Batya Rosenblum is proud of the women’s events and relationships Chabad of the South Hills has organized over the last quarter century. (Photo provided by Chabad of South Hills)

Part of Chabad of the South Hill’s success, Rosenblum said, is the organization’s willingness to reach out beyond the confines of its building. He noted that they’ve done Purim parties and Chanukah events, featured speakers and programming at various public spaces, including hotels, the Jewish Community Center and more.

He said that his inspiration came from the Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who encouraged the growth of Chabad in the suburbs after the Holocaust.

The goal, Rosenblum said, has never changed and never has been strictly about growth.

“We want Judaism to be enriched in the world and we want more Jews to experience being Jewish. That’s the goal,” he said. “Ultimately, to bring about the coming of the moshiach.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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