Douglas “Woody” Ostrow, the new chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh is under no illusions about how enormous his job is.
“It is a time-consuming position because Federation wants to make sure no one falls out of the social net,” he said, “so if there’s anything happening in our Jewish community they’re aware of it; they’re on top of it, and they are trying to be helpful without being intrusive in any organization or agency.”
In a recent one-on-one interview with the Chronicle, Ostrow outlined the tasks he faces in his two-year term.
“I think so much of our mission now is going to become continuity,” he said. “We at Federation, and all our supporting beneficiary agencies, have been very good over the last decade or two at providing services and making sure that we reach out to all Jews and make sure that if we can help sustain and fulfill their needs, we do.”
He sees his job as maintaining that level of achievement, which given the challenges facing American Jews, won’t be easy.
He noted trends, which were spotlighted recently by the Pew Survey of U.S. Jews. Among those findings, Jews continue to walk away from organized religion and marry out of the faith.
“I think a large part of that problem is America is such a welcoming place,” Ostrow said, “and since most of the Jews of the Diaspora — and if you don’t live in Israel then very much you’re going to be in North America — and the democracies of North America, particularly the United States, are so welcoming, so engaging, that it is so easy and welcoming to assimilate.”
And that’s the challenge Jews in Pittsburgh and nationwide face.
“We need to make sure we learn how to be a Jewish-identified people in a democracy that has opened its arms to us more than any other country in our history,” Ostrow said.
“Failure is not an option,” he added. “We’re not going to fail in figuring out how to engage it.”
Along that line, many activities Federation supports and will continue to support over the next two years are youth related.
“A lot of the new initiatives at the Federation that I have been hearing about and endorse, and hope to grow, are around youth,” he said.
He also noted the new Pittsburgh Jewish Community Scorecard, the metrics-based mechanism designed to gauge how well the community is doing to meet its needs, will help identify areas the Federation and other community agencies and congregations must address. The first “scorecard” could be ready by the end of the year.
A Pittsburgh area businessman — he’s the president of CleanCare, an industrial linen supply business that has been in his family for three generations — Ostrow has served the Federation in many key positions, including as a member of its executive committee and board of directors.
In addition, he has made contributions to Federation partner agencies, most notably as president of the Jewish Association on Aging and the Jewish Community Center.
Ostrow said he’s beginning his term, organizationally speaking, from a position of strength, citing the increase in donors in the last Community Campaign.
“In the last few years, for the first time, we’re making sure our donor base is getting a little younger,” he said. “You look at the demographics of Pittsburgh, too. We weren’t a young community, but for sustainability you have to bring in new people and new donors, so not only is our donor base growing, but now we’re getting younger, meaning we’re bringing in more younger donors and people than losing older ones.”
No small feat at a time when federations nationwide are struggling with declining donor bases.
“The community has really evolved; we’ve become much more inclusive. Agencies reach out for help, and Federation is happy to extend that help to make sure the fabric of the community remains so strong.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)