The year 2012 brought an unprecedented collaboration between the religious schools of Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom, and Rodef Shalom, a Reform congregation.
The advent of J-JEP (Joint Jewish Education Program), in which religious school students in grades kindergarten through seven from both congregations join together for learning, was the answer to declining numbers in classrooms in both programs. This alliance — reaching across denominations — may serve as an example of pooling community resources for a common good that other Jewish institutions in the city may emulate, making it number one of the Chronicle’s top 10 stories of 2012. The others follow:
Religious institutions exempted from Pennsylvania’s funeral director law
Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah Congregation, and a director of the funerary practices of the Vaad HaRabonim of Pittsburgh and its Chevra Kadisha, filed a lawsuit in August against the commonwealth, asserting that its arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Law violated the rabbi’s constitutional rights to conduct religious burials.
Wasserman sought clarification of Pennsylvania law following 28 months of state investigations for conducting the funerals of members of his congregation in 2010 and 2011.
In December, Wasserman favorably settled the suit, guaranteeing “that individuals engaged in performing the ceremonies, customs, religious rites or practices of any denomination or sect are excluded from the definition of ‘funeral director’ in Pennsylvania law, as has always been the case,” Wasserman said in a statement.
Federation mission to Israel
From June 19 to 28, 290 people traveled to Israel with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Centennial Mega Mission.
The mission — considered the largest this region has sent to the Jewish state — offered program tracks for families, first-timers and veteran Israel travelers. The latter group had the additional opportunity on several of the days to choose from special interest itineraries encompassing archeology, art, culinary, politics, co-existence, outdoor adventure and more.
The mission also featured “mega events” for all participants to join together for special performances and memorable activities such as dancing with Israeli soldiers on an IDF base, and descending Masada together with light-sticks after dark. And, of course, those on the mission enjoyed meeting with those members of Pittsburgh’s Partnership2gether communities of Karmiel and Misgav — a traditional component of any Federation mission.
Presbyterians vote down divestment resolution
In July, a sharply divided Presbyterian Church (USA) voted 333 to 331 — with two abstentions — to reject a resolution to divest funds from companies doing business in Israel. The vote was taken at the PCUSA’s 220th biennial General Assembly held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh.
The controversial divestment resolution was replaced with an alternative resolution emphasizing positive investment in enterprises that would help grow the Palestinian economy.
While some members of the church urged its commissioners to vote against divestment for the sake of Jewish-Presbyterian relations, and to avoid partisanship, many others resorted to a vitriolic lexicon, accusing Israel of “apartheid,” and “ethnic cleansing.”
The anti-Israel sentiment stems from the national level of the Presbyterian Church, said Rabbi Alvin K. Berkun of Pittsburgh, immediate past chair of the National Council of Synagogues, who addressed the Presbyterian committee on Middle East Peacemaking Issues before the vote.
“Their [the Presbyterians’] sympathies are clearly in the Arab world, because that is where they missionize,” Berkun said, adding that divestment would most likely be on the agenda again at the next G.A. in 2014.
“I think they’re going to come back for more,” he said. “And unless the tone changes from the top, we’re going to have a tough time.”
Numerous personnel changes at local Jewish institutions
This year saw many longtime leaders at congregations and agencies leaving their posts.
Amy Karp left her job as the Agency for Jewish Learning’s adult education coordinator after 14 years, and was succeeded by Danielle Kranjec. Jeff Cohan resigned from his post as Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s community relations director to become the first executive director of Jewish Vegetarians of North America. Gregg Roman succeeded him.
After six and a half years, Becky Abrams left her job as director of the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry, succeeded by Matthew Bolton. After 17 years, Laurie Gottlieb stepped down as director of communications and fundraising at the Jewish Family & Children’s Service, and was succeeded by Patricia Kennedy. Gottlieb left JF&CS to become the chief communications officer at the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.
Rabbi Sam Weinberg was named the new principal of Hillel Academy, succeeding Rabbi Avrumi Sacks, who left the school after three years.
Announcements were made that Cantor Ben Rosner of Beth Shalom, Rabbi Amy Hertz of Rodef Shalom and Rabbi Art Donsky of Temple Ohav Shalom would be leaving their congregations in the near future. Likewise, announcements were made of the upcoming departures of executive directors at Rodef Shalom (Jeff Hertzog) and Temple Sinai (Bill Padnos). Scott Allen was hired as director of Beth Shalom.
While this is not a comprehensive list of all personnel changes in the Pittsburgh Jewish community this year, it is indicative of what may be a shift in direction for many organizations. New hires inevitably bring new ideas, and fresh perspectives. We will be watching for the changes.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre goes to Israel
The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, in its first international tour in almost two decades, traveled to Israel in August as one of six international dance companies to perform at the Karmiel Dance Festival, which drew 250,000 visitors.
The tour marked a new benchmark in the ever-growing relationship between Pittsburgh and Karmiel, sister cities through the Partnership2gether initiative of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the Jewish Agency in Israel. While cultural exchanges have long existed between the two cities, the PBT’s inclusion in the Karmiel Dance Festival notes the first major intra-city bond to reach outside the immediate Jewish community.
Jewish Pittsburgh mourned the loss of several mainstays of the community, including: co-founder and director of the Steeltown Entertainment Project, Ellen Kander; Jesse Cohen, past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and founder of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; Aaron “Jumbo” Narvol, longtime deli counterman at Murray Avenue Kosher; internationally renown scholar and Zionist Joseph Eaton; the principal pops conductor for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and award-winning composer, Marvin Hamlisch; and longtime U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, also an architect of the Warren Commission’s famous Magic Bullet Theory for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Moishe House comes to town
Moishe House, an international organization providing Jewish experiences to young adults in their 20s by creating home-based communities, came to Pittsburgh this year.
Four 20-something Jews — two men and two women — moved into a newly designated Moishe House in Squirrel Hill (Moishe House does not advertise the addresses of its locations). The house will be the site of many religious, social and educational programs for dozens of young Jews throughout the Pittsburgh area.
Moishe House has 46 residences in 14 countries, engaging more than 50,000 attendees a year.
Pittsburgh’s Moishe House is expected to have seven or more programs per month, in an effort to engage young Jews who statistically do not affiliate with congregations.
Alternative Jewish offerings, like Moishe House, may be the wave of the future in Jewish youth engagement.
August Wilson Center/Holocaust Center collaboration
In October, more than 200 people from across the Pittsburgh area attended the gala opening of the “The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936,” at the August Wilson Center, Downtown. The exhibit was co-sponsored by the August Wilson Center and the Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, and was just the first piece of a seven-month educational and cultural series of events intended to explore 100 years of collaboration between Blacks and Jews, including town hall dialogues and cultural presentations.
The long saga of the Maryland–based sofer who defrauded 50 buyers of “Holocaust” Torahs he purportedly rescued from Europe, earning him the moniker, “the Jewish Indiana Jones.”
U.S. District Attorney Colleen McMahon sentenced Youlus to serve more than four years in prison at an Oct. 11 hearing, followed by three years of probation. The judge also ordered Youlus to pay nearly $1 million in restitution to his victims.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)