Shortly before Hurricane Ivan struck Western Pennsylvania in September 2004, Bill Stevens had poured more than $30,000 into renovating his family’s home in Carnegie: new windows, a new kitchen, a new water heater — the works.
Stevens, the director of maintenance at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, lost everything when his house was flooded with 20 feet of water. He had no flood insurance, and his homeowner’s policy did not cover any of the damage. But thanks to donations from Beth El’s congregants, Stevens was able to rebuild and replace almost everything that he lost.
“My family knows how blessed we are,” said Stevens, who has worked at Beth El for 20 years. “I don’t know what we would have done if I didn’t have my Beth El family.”
Stevens grew up in Ashland, Ky., and prior to moving to Pittsburgh and taking a job at Beth El, he really had no experience interacting with Jewish people. Now, he is overwhelmed with respect and love for those with whom he has worked and served for two decades.
Despite some negative stereotypes he had heard about Jews before coming to Beth El, Stevens was always open to forming his own opinions.
“I’ve learned how kind, and respectful and nice Jewish people are,” he said. “I think they have big hearts.”
Stevens is one of many longtime non-Jewish employees of Jewish organizations in Pittsburgh who have broadened their understanding of Jews and Judaism during the tenure of their employment and serve as de facto ambassadors to members of the general public who may have preconceived notions about Jews.
From time to time, acquaintances will make negative comments to Stevens about Jews when they hear he works at a synagogue, he said.
“I say, ‘You guys all got the wrong idea about the Jewish people,’” Stevens said. “I say ‘they have been great to me. They treat me like gold.’”
Deb Oz is in her 27th year as a teacher at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh. As a Roman Catholic growing up in the small Fayette County town of Connellsville, Oz knew of only one Jewish family in the area.
But Oz, who had Jewish friends in college, did not hesitate to apply for a teaching position at Hillel.
“Children are children,” she said.
When friends discover she works at a Jewish school, she said, they often ask her, “What’s that like?”
“I tell them there are more similarities than differences,” she said. “Our goal is the same: to educate our children the best we can.”
After working at Hillel for so many years, Oz has learned a lot about Jewish people, she said.
“The main thing I’ve learned is how deep a commitment they have to faith, family and community,” she said.
For more than 20 years, Patti Dziekan has worked for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, first as a receptionist for the Federation and since 1999 as the administrative assistant for the Jewish Community Foundation.
Dziekan had worked for years at a law firm downtown prior to coming to Federation, but when she returned to work in 1994 after maternity leave, the law firm placed her in a less desirable position.
That’s when she heard about the opening at the Federation through a contact who worked at a placement agency.
“At first, I thought it was a little odd that I didn’t have to be Jewish to work here,” Dziekan recalled.
But after meeting with several Federation leaders and being offered a larger salary than she had been earning, along with benefits, Dziekan had “no hesitation” about taking the job.
Having grown up in Hazelwood, Dziekan’s exposure to Jews came mostly through her mother, who had some Jewish friends.
“I was familiar with Judaism, but not as familiar as I am now,” she said. “The only preconception I had was that all Jewish people followed the same kosher aspects. I didn’t realize you didn’t have to follow kosher laws if you didn’t want to.”
Dziekan has learned more about Jews than just diversity in dietary habits, though.
“I have learned about the concept of tzedakah,” she said. “The staff has been having study sessions with Rabbi [Danny] Schiff. I’m loving those. I’m picking up so much knowledge.”
Dziekan gets “upset and offended” when she hears someone make a negative comment about Jews or Judaism, she said, but she goes to bat for the community when she hears those sorts of statements.
“I say, ‘I’ve worked here for 20 years, and I’ve been treated so well for 20 years. There’s no reason for a comment like that. You don’t know what you’re talking about,’” she said
For Linda Lewis, who serves as the director of operations of Jewish Residential Services, working in the Jewish community has “enhanced” what she already knew about the Jewish people from growing up in the Hill District surrounded by Jewish merchants.
“The kindness, the acceptance of people of all cultures,” said Lewis, who has worked at JRS since 2001.
Sometimes people who have no experience with Jews can be “very critical and unaware,” Lewis said. “I think there are some assumptions people make. I have to enlighten them and let them know that it’s not the case.”
Lewis also has found herself teaching other non-Jews about Jewish traditions and holidays, she said.
“The non-Jews in my life, people at my church ask questions,” she said. “I have had to teach people what Chanukah actually is, and about the Passover seder,” she said. “I’ve had to explain why there was so much to prepare for the elaborate seder that we have [for the special needs adults the agency serves].
“I feel a responsibility as a non-Jew, as a Baptist, to educate and break down barriers,” Lewis continued. “I think I will always be that kind of ambassador all my life.”
Dale Caprara, who was raised Roman Catholic, sometimes heard clichéd comments about Jews while growing up in Churchill.
“You would hear the stereotypes,” said Caprara, who has worked at Beth Shalom Congregation in Squirrel Hill as its controller for more than a decade. “I would hear the financial stereotype, that all Jews are rich. I would hear friends talking about Squirrel Hill as ‘little Israel.’”
Still, he had no compunction about going to work at the Conservative congregation when the job opportunity arose.
“I had no preconceived notions about Jewish people when I came here,” he said. “I got over whatever there was a long time ago. You accept people for who they are.”
The only feedback Caprara has received from friends or family who discover he works at a synagogue was from his siblings, he said.
“When they found out, they said, ‘You’re finally getting some religion in your life,” Caprara said. “No one has had a disparaging word for where I work or who I work for.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.