Rabbi Meir Tabak believes in the power of a smile.
Tabak is the new city director of NCSY, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, a Jewish youth group for teens in grades six through 12 under the auspices of the Orthodox Union.
“If you’re Jewish and you’re a teenager, we’d love to see you,” Tabak said. “If you don’t have a smile yet, we’d like to put one on for you.”
A recent transplant to the city, Tabak meets the most important prerequisite to qualify as a true Pittsburgher: He’s a Steelers fan despite growing up in Borough Park and attending yeshiva in New York, Toronto and Jerusalem. It was a cousin from the Steel City who helped convert the now 26-year-old to become a fan of the storied football team.
“For the last nine years, I’ve been a big Steelers fan, but I never thought I would end up in Pittsburgh,” he said.
His journey to Pittsburgh and NCSY began in Jerusalem where he was living with his wife, Rivky. Tabak’s original plan was to find a job in the tech industry but said the pandemic forced him to rethink his priorities.
Instead of finding employment at a startup, a friend suggested he look at Ohr Lagolah, a two-year rabbinic outreach and teacher training program accredited by the Israel Ministry of Education.
Shortly before he finished the course, Tabak was recruited by NCSY director Tzali Freedman.
“He told me had a job in Pittsburgh. It was just so funny how it all clicked,” Tabak said. “In my mind, I was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be crazy if I could come to Pittsburgh?’”
Tabak, his wife and two young children have been in the city for about a year and attend services at both Poale Zedeck and Shaare Torah. The couple is already integrated into the community, though. Shortly after moving to Pittsburgh, their second son was born, and they had to spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit. Tabak said the response of community members was
“They made us feel we were taken care of in every way possible,” he said. “So many people wanted to help.”
And while they are becoming part of the fabric in Squirrel Hill, Tabak said he’s easy to spot.
“I am one of only two ‘shtreimels’ (a fur hat worn by some Chasidic Jews) in Pittsburgh,” he said. “I tend to stand out and I love it.”
Tabak is part of the Chasidic group Spinka, which wears the headgear, he explained. It isn’t as well-known in Pittsburgh, he said, which sometimes leads people to think he’s a part of the Lubavitch community. Of course, he said, the uniqueness has advantages.
“On Halloween, a lot of people were complimenting me on my costume,” he recalled with a laugh.
Helping the Jewish community is part of the rabbi’s DNA. His grandfather helped start the Hatzalah in his Brooklyn community. The ambulatory organization began when people realized 911 wasn’t responding quickly enough in some communities, so they created their own volunteer group. He also helped create an organization that assisted community members who couldn’t afford the basics.And both he and Tabak’s father also help people who are incarcerated.
“It was something I was aware of my entire life but something I never thought of as a career choice,” Tabak said.
His goal is to get teens familiar with NCSY, whether they live in Squirrel Hill or the suburbs, or if they consider themselves Orthodox, Reform or simply Jewish.
NCSY focuses on the classics, he said: Love your fellow Jew and love Israel.
“This year, we’re focusing on the ‘love your fellow Jew’ part. We feel that in today’s age teens are caught up on what’s going on online and just need a little encouragement to make sure everybody feels safe, and everybody gets along and has a wonderful time,” he said.
The Pittsburgh group also interacts with teens around the country. The Central East Region, of which Pittsburgh is a part, includes Cleveland, Columbus and Detroit.
In fact, the youth group is preparing for its regional Shabbaton in Cassopolis, Michigan, from Sept. 1-3. The event will
feature American-Israeli rapper Nissim Black.
Tabak said he joined NCSY at a time of growth, and he is looking to build on its success.
“The woman who used to run NCSY did an amazing job, and there is a solid foundation,” he said. “I’m hoping to build on what has already been set in place.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.