More collaboration, fewer buildings? Jewish Pittsburgh post-COVID
Planning for the futureCommunal challenges underscored during the pandemic

More collaboration, fewer buildings? Jewish Pittsburgh post-COVID

Rabbi Aaron Bisno: "We can’t afford to pretend that tomorrow is not different than yesterday, and we need to approach it with a different mindset."

Congregation Beth Shalom has been sharing its space with New Light Congregation since October 2018. Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt writes of asking the right questions for collaboration. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Congregation Beth Shalom has been sharing its space with New Light Congregation since October 2018. Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt writes of asking the right questions for collaboration. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

As Jewish Pittsburgh begins to emerge from a year of lockdown — a year of Zoom holidays and Zoom weddings and Zoom shivas — community leaders are thinking about the future. Longstanding communal challenges, like a surplus of physical space and limited collaboration among organizations, have been underscored since “coronavirus” became a household word.

To be viable going forward, many say, Jewish Pittsburgh — and the American Jewish community more generally — will need to think about serious communal changes.

“I think that Jewish lay leaders and professionals need to be open to what we are learning about Jewish life right now from this unique experience and period of time,” said Rabbi Amy Bardack, director of Jewish Life and Learning for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “We need to be noticing what is happening.”

One question that needs to be addressed, Bardack said, is “what weaknesses in our systems did the pandemic bring to light? There are certain trends in Jewish activity — Jewish affiliation prior to last March — that have only intensified or gained momentum because of the pandemic.”

Those trends were documented in the 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, conducted by researchers at Brandeis University, which found only 19% of Jews in Pittsburgh were paying members of brick-and-mortar congregations, and that there was a declining enrollment at part-time religious schools.

“Those trends are being magnified,” Bardack said.

With declining institutional affiliation, the community’s current structural framework may not be sustainable.

“Institutions have for probably 150 years thrived as being silo, independent and entrepreneurial,” explained Steven Windmueller, emeritus professor of Jewish communal service at HUC-JIR/Los Angeles, who has written extensively on the need to reevaluate the current Jewish communal structure. “And the modality of where we are and what we will need is going to be a different model. It’s going to be collaborative, it needs to be very much more focused on the communal or the collective interests.”

Community leaders need to ask, “What do Jews as consumers and as participants and as stakeholders require?” Windmueller said. “And I think it begins with that premise of this shift in how we see ourselves in relationship to others and other institutions. What all of this means is we are going to have to learn to play in the sandbox together, nicely, creatively, consistently.”

There is an “urgent” need to start the process of interorganizational communication and collaboration now, said Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation.

“The numbers are numbers,” Bisno said. “Facts are facts. We can’t wish them away. The entirety of our community will lose for our being not able to see beyond our own immediate emotions and interests.

“The urgency of this moment is a result of patterns and trends that have been with us for a while now,” Bisno continued. “For at least a decade, we have been able to identify or articulate them. But the future came very slowly, then it came all of a sudden with regard to how this last year unfolded. And if we are still trying to meet 2021 challenges with 2019 thinking and strategies and plans, then we are seeking to perpetuate a reality that doesn’t exist anymore.”

Too much real estate
For several years, community leaders have known that the Pittsburgh Jewish community is “overbuilt,” said Jeffrey Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. A facilities study commissioned by the Federation back in 2013 showed a surplus of underutilized space in Pittsburgh’s Jewish institutions.

Following a year of social distancing, when many Jewish institutions operated virtually, Finkelstein wonders if some community funds supporting all the brick-and-mortar facilities could be better spent.

Several institutions, like day schools, the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Association on Aging, naturally will continue to require brick and mortar buildings. “But let’s face it,” Finkelstein said. “We have excess physical space in the Jewish community, and all of that costs money to maintain. And my contention is, should we be thinking about spending that money on providing services as opposed to paying for roofs and heating and stuff like that? So the question is, is there a willingness to talk about sharing that space?”

With more space-sharing, funds could be invested “in achieving what each of our organizations want to achieve,” Finkelstein said. “So, synagogues, let’s say, want to connect more people to Judaism, mostly through a religious, spiritual lens. If they had more resources, and weren’t paying for big buildings — which some are — could they hire another outreach director, someone else to do programming to connect with families or seniors, et cetera? Those are the kinds of questions I think about.”

Several local Jewish organizations and congregations are already sharing space, at least to some extent. One example is New Light Congregation’s relocation to Congregation Beth Shalom’s building following the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre. New Light, as well as Congregation Dor Hadash, had been tenants at Tree of Life until it was shuttered after the attack.

Beth Shalom’s relationship with New Light “has been good for us and worked out quite well,” said Rabbi Seth Adelson, senior rabbi at Beth Shalom. “I think that while we are all attached to our buildings and our individual identities, it’s worth noting that our identities as congregations are not based on the bricks and the mortar. I’m hoping in the coming years that congregations will look at each other and say, ‘Hey, perhaps we could be in deeper relationship such that we might be able to save everybody some money and use our space more efficiently.’”

Since the Oct. 27 massacre, Tree of Life, as well as Dor Hadash, have been housed in Rodef Shalom’s building. The concept of sharing physical space is not new to Tree of Life, said its president, Carol Sikov Gross.

Sharing facilities is “something Tree of Life had been working on prior to Oct. 27,” she said. “That’s why we had the metropolitan model and we had rented space to Dor Hadash and New Light and had other things going on in our building. We were already repositioning and moving ourselves in that direction.”

Tree of Life is determined to continue that modality by rebuilding its own facility to provide space for other Jewish institutions, serve as a hub of wider communal activity, and be “a center for building bridges,” hosting educational activities and symposiums, Gross said.

“That’s what our congregation wants and we think that’s also what the community, the city, the country, the world needs to see — that hate will not win,” she said.

But not all organizations may be willing or ready to share space, Bardack said.

“I think it’s very sensitive and it’s up to each community, but there is a feeling like your organization is a home, and the home is associated with the building,” she said. “And I think there’s a lot of emotions around that — less for offices and schools and more for synagogues where multiple generations have been part of it. Even with plaques, with loved ones’ names on seats and on walls. It’s hard to give that up. It’s emotional.”

Generally, people “are protective of the organizations they have worked so hard on behalf of, both as volunteers and as participants as well as supporters with their finances,” said Rabbi Jamie Gibson, rabbi emeritus of Temple Sinai. “I think the culture of our area is one to retain things as they have been as much as possible. And now they can’t be.

“I would like us all to see, not how we can do more with less, but how can we be smart about what physical spaces we need to serve the congregants we have and to use those spaces to be able to launch creative initiatives of outreach in the community, from Squirrel Hill to Mt. Lebanon to Wexford,” Gibson added.

AgeWell Pittsburgh providers enjoy their time volunteering together at the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry.	Photo by Kathy Poth
AgeWell Pittsburgh is one example of successful community collaboration. (Photo by Kathy Poth)

Mandate to collaborate
Several successful community collaborations are already happening, but there needs to be more, local leaders said.

Examples include the Joint Jewish Education Program for grades K-8 run, by Rodef Shalom and Beth Shalom; AgeWell Pittsburgh, in which the JAA, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and Jewish Family and Community Services, with the help of the Federation, serve older adults; and JFunds, a network of Jewish financial support services.

“You don’t always have to merge to think about a different way to do business and serve populations,” said Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of the JCC.

Schreiber noted an increase in collaborations in the last several years, and thinks the pandemic will be “an accelerant” to creating others.

There are both aspirational and practical matters — like financial sustainability — that are at play when considering collaboration, or mergers, Schreiber said. “Ideally, you want to be thinking about the aspirational side before it becomes a financial prerequisite to get something done.”

With the decline of institutional affiliation, it is imperative for organizations to not only strategize internally about sustainability, but to reach out to one another, said Ron Symons, founding director of the JCC’s Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement.

“This is a very scary time because we don’t know yet what the [pandemic’s] impact on the institutions is going to be,” said Symons. “Long term, we don’t know how people are going to spend what might be more limited funds, or what might be more limited social time.

“I think everyone is looking out for their own institutions,” Symons continued. “But we have to do this with two sets of glasses on. One is, how do each of these institutions strive and thrive in the traditional ways of engagement. But when we take off those glasses, and put on the other set of glasses and we think about the ecosystem of the entire Greater Pittsburgh Jewish community, I think we have a responsibility to be talking to each other about how it is that we do that even better across institutions. That is synagogue to synagogue, that’s agency to synagogue, that’s agency to agency.”

Competition between community organizations needs to end, Bisno stressed.

“There is no dishonor in recognizing that there was a time to spawn more congregations and now is the time — there is a season to every purpose under heaven — to gather together,” he said. “There are a lot of threats out there. We don’t need to be scaring each other. It’s choppy waters. The world is a scary place and the uncertainty is higher now — or we are more aware of it now — than ever. We don’t know the roadmap forward quite, but we are better if we do it together.”

Starting the conversation
While there is a general consensus that community-wide conversations about shared visions need to start happening, it is not clear how those conversations should be initiated, or when.

“I think it’s evolving,” Windmueller said. The timeline for the dialogue, “depends on how quickly folks come to some of the a-ha moments, the reality moments that where we are is not where we need to be.”

The landscape is changing quickly, noted Gibson, “especially when it comes to synagogue identification of what does it mean to belong. What does it mean to retain one’s membership during a pandemic? What does it mean to have people who now associate with a synagogue over Zoom and want to be members in Panama City, Florida? And what does it mean when the people right down the block who’ve been members may say, ‘I don’t know if I really feel that connection anymore, given that it’s two-dimensional.’ These are really hard questions, and I don’t have strong answers except to say that we’re all interested in creating a path forward for our community, realizing that not every institution is going to emerge intact in its present form.”

To facilitate interorganizational conversations, “I’m looking for the convener,” said Gibson, who pointed to the Federation or the Wexner Foundation as prospects for filling that role.

The Federation “potentially could take a lead,” said Finkelstein, “if there’s a willingness on the part of others to come to the table with open minds.”

At the moment, though, “our institutions are still in the heat of COVID,” Finkelstein noted. “And it’s hard to plan for the future when you’re trying to put out the fire. So, I don’t think it’s exactly the right time to start convening on these discussions. It’s the right time to be having some quiet conversations for sure.”

In imaging Jewish Pittsburgh’s future, it’s helpful to think in terms of “aspiration and inclusivity and dreaming,” said Dan Marcus, executive director and CEO of Hillel Jewish University Center, who works to engage Pittsburgh’s college students. “Dreams can also be very practical. As we look forward, the question is how can we bring the voices together and how can we create that safe space for the big dream, the big aspiration? As we hear about those passions, that can be a roadmap to what we want to be and achieve.”

At this point, said Bisno, no one can predict “the endgame.”

“I just know we can’t afford to pretend that tomorrow is not different than yesterday, and we need to approach it with a different mindset,” he said. “If you don’t care who gets the credit, you can get a lot more done.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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