As it moves into the future, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh is looking back for guidance — not just to the 128 years that preceded its Aug. 31 annual meeting but to three millennia of Jewish teachings.
After installing its board and recognizing 11 individuals for their guidance, kindness and volunteering, JCC leaders cited biblical verses, Talmudic insights and familiar liturgy when describing the organization, its communal presence and the transition between CEOs Brian Schreiber and Jason Kunzman.
The JCC, said Kunzman, its CEO as of Sept. 1, can be understood via the words of Parshat Mishpatim and the statement of the Israelites: “naaseh v’nishma (we will do and we will listen).”
A Talmudic debate elucidates the biblical passage: Whereas Rabbi Tarfon maintained that action is greater than study, Rabbi Akiva differed. The Talmud teaches, Kunzman said, that study is superior because “study brings one to action.”
“This balancing act, between thinking and doing, is exactly what makes the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh so unique,” he continued. “There are times when we run the data and build consensus to lead us to action. Then there are other times when we leap into action and see perspective at a later point.”
Schreiber, who headed the organization for nearly 25 years and is now its chief external affairs officer, said the JCC’s “secret sauce” can be discerned from its initials.
“‘J’ is our first name,” he said. “We’re an identified Jewish institution…Our heritage, peoplehood, faith, tradition and enduring values guide where we have come from and where we are going.”
These ideas are driven by the words of Hillel, who when asked to recite the entire Torah while standing on one foot, answered, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. The rest is commentary. Go learn,” Schreiber said. “To the same end, we are a community institution and we are centered.”
The initials provide an understanding of “today’s JCC,” which is evident not only in the entity’s history and current services but in its future, he said.
There’s a remark from Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot: “It is not your duty to finish the work. Neither are you at liberty to neglect it,” Schreiber said. Less known is the end of Rabbi Tarfon’s maxim, which reads, “The reward is in the age to come.”
Overseeing the JCC for 25 years is “long by Jewish communal and JCC standards,” Schreiber said. “But our JCC was up and running for 103 years before I accepted the job. Our job now is to continue to build for the next 103.”
That future, Kunzman said, is driven by a deep understanding of self.
“There’s a reason why the word ‘Jewish’ is the first word in our name,” he said, adding that it’s “not just about what the organization has done, but perhaps even more importantly, what the organization can do.”
Board Chair Scott Seewald alluded to the future when telling nearly 200 attendees that the organization has both registered “record numbers of campers for the 2024 summer” and maxed out its Squirrel Hill and South Hills early childhood development centers for the coming school year.
In March 2020, the JCC had 4,150 member units. By February 2021, a year into the pandemic, the number dipped to 2,005. Last month, the number of member units rose to 3,834, according to JCC officials.
Although the JCC can pride itself on returning to solid footing, the desire is to grow, develop and pioneer ways of community engagement, Seewald explained.
“We continued efforts to become a regional leader in out-of-school inclusion services,” he said.
“Last summer, one in four of our campers, who came from 30 Allegheny County municipalities, were identified as neurodiverse. We’re using innovative programming and partnerships to meet the needs of this important population.”
Likewise, the JCC is committed to initiatives and collaborations promoting public health and wellness, including community support groups, blood drives, volunteering and “combating isolation among older adults through congregant meals and a rich compendium of in-person and virtual learning opportunities,” he said.
Seewald pointed to the JCC’s symbiotic relationship between past and present, explaining that the organization not only adheres to a generational model of serving others, but its leaders follow suit.
“While Jason has learned much from Brian over the past few years, Brian has also learned from Jason,” he said.
To honor Schreiber as he begins a new organizational role, the JCC is creating a multi-year campaign for a JCC Scholarship Endowment Fund totaling $50 million, according to Fara Marcus, the JCC’s chief development and marketing officer.
That sum will enable the JCC to “fully fund 100% of financial assistance” — more than $2.3 million each year. A percentage of the money raised during the JCC’s Big Night, scheduled for March 9, 2024, will seed the new endowment.
For Schreiber, the surprise announcement and sentiments expressed by JCC leaders stem from “the deep Jewish roots of this agency,” he said. “Those teachings inspire us to return and create action.”
The past five years have also proven instructive, he continued.
“We feel emboldened and feel more inspired to lean into who we are at the JCC so that we can define ourselves before others define us,” he said. “Leaning into Jewish wisdom and Jewish teaching actually allowed us to deepen who we are as a Jewish institution, but at the same time recognize that many of the same values that allow us to be a light among the nations allow us to be a beacon in this community. These are not mutually exclusive; they’re not binary choices and
you could actually be intentional about it.”
Before stepping aside as CEO, Schreiber took one more opportunity to kvell and give thanks.
“This is a joyous moment for me to know that the agency is in such amazing professional hands,” he said. “It’s something that we really aspire to as leaders.”
Looking out across Levinson Hall — a room filled with family, colleagues, staff and community members — Schreiber asked attendees to clutch their neighbor’s hand.
Four weeks ago, “in this very room,” the Shehecheyanu blessing was recited by the family members and survivors of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, he said.
“We say the Shehecheyanu whenever we realize the miracle of the present moment. It honors and expresses the wonder and gratitude of having arrived at this special day.”
After reciting the blessing in Hebrew, 200 people answered “Amen.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.