COVID-19 impacts Pittsburgh Jewish community
CoronavirusPittsburgh Jewish institutions respond

COVID-19 impacts Pittsburgh Jewish community

Programs and services canceled, others go online:

The pews of Congregation Beth Shalom’s sanctuary will be empty for the time being. Photo by Jim Busis
The pews of Congregation Beth Shalom’s sanctuary will be empty for the time being. Photo by Jim Busis

What a difference a week makes.

Last Thursday, COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, was just a topic of conversation and debate as Allegheny County had yet to report its first case.

Local Jewish institutions were trying to decide if, or when, they would need to cancel events and planned activities. Some congregations grappled with the idea of closing their physical doors but streaming services and programs or explored the idea of ceasing daily minyans but still celebrating Shabbat communally. Both the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh were working on plans to ensure their members still received the vital services they provided while not putting the public at risk.

Schools, museums and campus organizations were all open but pondering what the next few days and weeks would bring as COVID-19 cases were announced to both the east and west of the county.

And you could walk into virtually any grocery, convenience or department store, warehouse club or gas station and have your choice of toilet paper in whatever ply-count you desired.

Fast forward a week and all major league sporting events have been canceled or postponed, there has been a statewide shutdown of all non-essential services, and schools across the state have been suspended for a minimum of two weeks as students began celebrating what one local Jewish teen called a “coronavacation.”

The halcyon days of buying whatever type of toilet paper you wanted, whenever you needed it, are gone, at least for a while. As the news of the virus became more serious, store shelves also were quickly emptied of cleaning supplies, soap, dry goods and most of their fresh and frozen food selections.

A new normal swept across Pittsburgh as public officials worked to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. As of press time, there were 10 reported cases of the virus in Allegheny County and the city had banned all gatherings of 50 or more people.

Local Jewish institutions are now working to provide services for their respective communities within the guidelines set by the county, city and state. Over the next several weeks, the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle will continue to provide updates on cancelations, programs shifting to online formats and the rescheduling of events. For complete, up-to-the-minute information, check with individual institutions and synagogues.

Aleph Institute
Twelve-step programs hosted by the Aleph Institute will now be held online and by telephone for the next two weeks. Prison visits by volunteers have been suspended for the next two weeks although contracted rabbi visits will continue. Visit for more information.

Following Centers for Disease Control Guidelines, all BBYO programming has been cancelled. Teens are invited to participate in the new BBYO On Demand online streaming service featuring 24-hour programming at

Jewish Association on Aging
The JAA has restricted access to its Charles Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, AHAVA Memory Care Center, Residence at Weinberg Village and Bartlett Street Community (Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Terrace). If you do not work in a JAA building, you will not be allowed in.

“We serve an elderly community that is vulnerable,” said Deborah Winn-Horvitz, president and CEO of the JAA in a prepared statement. “In this time of uncertainty, our primary goal is to keep our residents safe and healthy. We are being proactive on every front to help us move through this situation in the safest and most caring way possible.”

Other preventative measures being implemented by the JAA include: residents and clients vigilantly monitored by the nursing staff for any changes in condition, with medical providers being contacted whenever conditions warrant a higher level of action; outside appointments by residents kept to a minimum; staff assisting with video calls (Skype, FaceTime) between residents and families, as well as continuing regular lines of communication including telephones and emails; determining visitation options in situations where there is a significant issue or change in condition or when end-of-life may be imminent; and restriction of communal meals for residents, with dining by tray service in effect.

Riverview Apartments is encouraged to follow JAA’s protocols for visitation restrictions.

As of press time, there were no cases of the coronavirus within the JAA.

Anyone with questions about JAA’s response to the virus can call their family and care provider hotline at 412-521-5675, email or check the agency’s website at

Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh
The JCC has suspended all programs and services until at least March 30. Its leaders are meeting with the Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging to discuss AgeWell Pittsburgh at the JCC and its meal program, exploring the option of a “grab and go” option.

A transition plan is being created for clients of physical therapy at the JCC Powered by the JAA.

A dedicated email address has been set up by the JCC at and additional information can be found at

“Our highest priority is the safety, health, and well-being of our members, staff and extended family,” JCC President and CEO Brian Schreiber said in an email. “We are following guidance and directives from civil and health authorities. The JCC will use our social media platforms to stay connected and to continue our community work in these unusual times as we await further communication from governmental leaders as to how we can support vulnerable populations we serve each day.”

Jewish Family and Community Services
JFCS will continue to serve its clients, meeting remotely by telephone, email and video. Critical services requiring face-to-face meetings will continue on a case-by-case basis. Several JFCS services have been modified to assist those in need while ensuring the safety of their clients and staff.

JFCS Squirrel Hill Food Pantry will continue to serve the community with food distributions. Clients will now receive pre-bagged foods.

JFCS Career Development Center will operate remotely to help those working to understand unemployment compensations programs and those with reduced hours and lay-offs.

JFCS Counseling and Senior Services will continue to provide modified services. Support groups will meet remotely or are being postponed. If you are not a JFCS client and need senior services, JFCS recommends calling AgeWell Pittsburgh at 412-422-0400. For counseling services, call 412-904-5960.

Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh
All upcoming events, including Good Deeds Day, have been postponed or canceled through the end of Passover, April 16. Additionally, Federation offices will be closed at least through March 25 and staff will work remotely.

The Federation has set up a special page on its website providing updates and information about the virus and the community:

“The Jewish Federation canceled events and activities out of an abundance of caution, keeping in mind the most vulnerable people in our community and the Jewish value of preserving human life,” said Adam Hertzman, the Federation’s director of marketing. “We are still working remotely and trying both to arrange some virtual gatherings and to help Jewish agencies cope with the disruption.”

Jewish Residential Services
Both supported living and families in transition programs remain in operation and are following the Office of Developmental Programs, CDC and Allegheny County guidelines. The Sally and Howard Levin Clubhouse is closed until further notice.

The Hebrew Free Loan Association and the Jewish Assistance Fund are continuing their normal operations. If you are financially impacted by the outbreak, HFLA is offering interest-free financial bridge loans to residents of Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington, Westmoreland and Armstrong counties. More information can be found at

Kollel Jewish Learning Center
All classes and chavrusas have moved to phone-based study sessions.

Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all Pennsylvania schools to close for 10 days. Pittsburgh Public Schools will remain closed through at least March 27. Several neighboring school districts will stay inactive longer.

Community Day School, Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh and Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh are all closed and will remain shuttered through March 27, however, classwork was scheduled to resume at home on Wednesday, March 18.

Some Conservative and Reform synagogues remain open to essential office staff but have canceled in-person events, including religious services. Rodef Shalom Congregation is now livestreaming Shabbat services, as is Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, Temple Emanuel of South Hills and Temple Sinai. Congregation Beth Shalom is conducting virtual minyans through Zoom. Many classes and meetings have been moved online.

Check with individual congregations for program and service information or if you need assistance accessing their services online.

Some Orthodox congregations are still holding limited live services. As of press time, Shaare Torah was still holding daily minyans, but was making an effort to comply with preventative health recommendations, including limiting the number of attendees. Daf Yomi classes were continuing to meet in person, but others had moved to conference call.

Chabad of Pittsburgh closed after evening prayers on March 17. The center will remain closed until further notice.

Congregation Poale Zedeck has also canceled all minyans and live events at least through March 27. In an email sent to congregants on March 16, the congregation’s rabbi, Daniel Yolkut, also noted that he was “firmly opposed to any private minyanim being held at this time.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at

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