Pittsburgh adult Jewish education will continue in perpetuity, at least if Arnold and Adrien Gefsky have anything to say about it.
The pair recently endowed the adult Jewish learning scholar position through a planned gift to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, meaning the community scholar position now held by Rabbi Danny Schiff will be a permanent part of Pittsburgh’s Jewish educational landscape. The position will be renamed the H. Arnold and Adrien B. Gefsky Community Scholar.
“The issue of education in the Jewish community, and in our Jewish community, is of utmost importance to me,” Arnold Gefsky said. “I specifically hone in on adult education.”
Gefsky, a local attorney and former chair of the Jewish Community Foundation, said that as a child education was wasted on him, or as he put it, “Sabbath school was a joke.”
That thinking, he said, was shared by many of the children he grew up with, so adult education became important to gain a better understanding of Judaism.
“Why be Jewish? What’s it all about? Where does it come from? Where did it originate? What are the miracles along the way?” were some of the questions he pondered.
It was through a relationship with Schiff, the Federation’s community scholar, and some of the classes he offered that Gefsky began to find answers.
Schiff is quick to note that he and Gefsky have a relationship dating back three decades to when the Pittsburgh attorney was part of the first Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning class offered locally.
“The first class was in 1993,” Schiff said. “Arnie was a member of that class. We’ve been partners in this enterprise for over 30 years, learning together.”
At that time, the rabbi was the community scholar with Jewish Education Institute, which became the Agency for Jewish Learning. The work of the AJL, Schiff said, became part of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Jewish Community Foundation in 2015. Over the last year, Federation has done some internal restructuring, and adult learning is now part of the engagement group.
The legacy gift, Schiff said, will continue the work he’s done with the Federation, which has touched more than 1,500 Jewish Pittsburghers since 2015. That number only accounts for registered participants — countless more have attended classes, lectures and programs that didn’t require registration, like the annual Tikkun Leil Shavuot attended by hundreds across the community.
Some of the programs, Schiff said, qualify as Continuing Legal Education courses for attorneys.
Over the years new educational programming has developed.
“Pittsburgh is both a large and small community at the same time,” Schiff said. “It’s not possible, nor is it desirable, to do as happens in much larger cities, which is to offer the same old thing all the time and new people will show up. Our program has been innovating every single year.”
The endowment created by the Gefskys, Schiff said, is the fulfillment of what an adult Jewish educator hopes for.
He said the need for education beyond what children are taught in day schools or religious schools is vital as a vehicle for immersing one in Judaism.
He called the gift a “singular affirmation” of the importance of adult learning and the belief that it is key to the future of building a strong Jewish community — something both he and the Federation hold to be true.
“After all, you build a future community with two things: physical resources and people who are knowledgeable about the vision of where the community needs to go. And we’re really trying to work very hard on the second part of that,” he said.
The gift was part of legacy planning, Gefsky said, something he views as vital to the community. He said during his time with the Foundation, he emphasized the “rainy day theory.”
“It’s important to build a treasure chest in the Foundation,” Gefsky said. “I’m hoping more people start thinking about legacy planning so that programs that are important to people and important to the community can be established and are able to be continued on a regular basis because of the availability of endowments.”
The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh will launch the Gefsky Community Scholar at a celebration honoring the Gefskys’ gift at a Sept. 19 event at Federation headquarters that will also serve as a reunion of past participants in the Florence Melton School of Adult Learning. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.