While I believe that the essence of last week’s article “More collaboration, fewer buildings? Jewish Pittsburgh post-COVID” is correct — that we are overbuilt and it would be worthwhile to think about collaborating — I think that we are starting with the wrong premise.
First, while the 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study showed that over 50% of our community is still within Squirrel Hill and adjacent neighborhoods, over 40% (and growing) of Pittsburgh’s Jews live in the surrounding suburban areas. Without bringing these leaders and communities into the conversation, we run the risk of failing to learn from our entire community.
If we do not engage almost half of the Jewish population, we will draw wrong conclusions from the data, which will inevitably lead us to choose the wrong solutions for the community. It is essential that all voices, as much as is humanly possible, are included in the conversation of the future of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.
In February 2020, I wrote a piece for The Times of Israel titled “A New Judaism: A Response to Dr. Windmueller,” in which I shared that we are heading in the wrong direction because we keep asking reactive questions. In other words, our solutions to finding answers for the future have been found by looking to the past and by asking what is it that we used to do. For the most part, we have not been engaging in a process that begins with asking, “What is our goal?” as well as being led by vision- and mission-driven questions. I concluded that such thinking could be termed “Thinking Yavneh.”
What is “Thinking Yavneh”? It means that we should be risk-taking and forward-thinking like our ancestors. When our sages were looking at the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., they stopped looking backward and to the past that now lay in ruin. Instead, they decided to go forward and create a new Judaism — the same Judaism that has sustained us for nearly 2,000 years. I believe that choosing to “Think Yavneh,” and asking the right questions, will lead us down a better path.
What does this look like for our community? Are there too many buildings? Are there too many institutions? Are too many spread too far and wide? Should we collaborate?
We already know the answers to these questions is yes (and has been yes for quite some time). Everyone is willing to talk, but that isn’t leading us anywhere or providing a roadmap.
Instead, let us “Think Yavneh,” with human-centered design thinking.
If we are really ready for a new future, then we’re willing to take risks and engage in design-thinking. Instead of “Are there too many buildings?,” we might ask, “Where do people need to practice and explore their Judaism as a community?”
Instead of “Are there too many institutions?,” we might ask, “What does an institution for Pittsburgh’s Jewish future need to do?” Instead of “Should we collaborate?,” we might ask, “What could communal collaboration look like?”
It also might mean asking more specific questions like, “What do people want or need from their Judaism?,” “What does one look for when one chooses to join a community here in Pittsburgh?” or “What might our community look like to serve the next generation?”
At Temple Ohav Shalom we are using such thinking to guide our steps into the future. We asked our teens what they wanted, and it wasn’t denominationalism; it was help finding their path. We created a teen board that encourages and creates opportunities for interdenominational and intercommunal programs and relationship building. We’ve done it with the multiple virtual collaborative programs along with many organizations in Pittsburgh, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. We’ve done it by rethinking our religious school programming. Pre-COVID, we shifted to a Sunday and Saturday model that brought the entire family to the synagogue.
Not every idea we tried has worked, but our design-thinking approach has produced results that have been well worth the effort.
We make the best decisions when we act out of hope and not out of fear. Now is an eit la’asot, “a time to act” for the future of our Jewish community. We are blessed with such incredible lay and professional leaders in our Pittsburgh community. And, with only a 19% affiliation rate, the sky truly is the limit for the future of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.
Now is the time to take that exciting step to think differently, to build on the incredible foundations of our ancestors, and ask the right questions. I am willing to throw my kippah into the ring and be an active participant in that worthwhile conversation that leads to action. It is not up to us to complete the task, but now is the time to do our part.
Kulanu Kadimah, forward together my friends. PJC
Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt is rabbi at Temple Ohav Shalom.