Pittsburgh, Israel, food and mental health: top stories of 2023
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Top Stories of 2023The year that was

Pittsburgh, Israel, food and mental health: top stories of 2023

A year of reporting offered familiarities and surprises. Here's a look at Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle's top stories of 2023

Photo by Tambako The Jaguar via Flickr at https://rb.gy/mcpqlm
Photo by Tambako The Jaguar via Flickr at https://rb.gy/mcpqlm

Mild temperatures make us question whether winter is really here. And though we wonder when ice and slush will arrive, we’re fully confident of one thing: 2023 is over.

The year was filled with familiarities and surprises — some pleasant, some horrifying. Throughout each event, the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle reported the actions and attitudes of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.

As we hope for a new year bursting with good news, we look back on the top stories of 2023.

As Israeli government moves right, Pittsburghers respond

The year began with a focus abroad as local leaders critiqued the Israeli government. Rabbis Doris Dyen and Jamie Gibson, as well as Cantor David Reinwald, were among more than 300 U.S. spiritual leaders who signed an open letter titled “A Call to Action for Clergy in Protest of Israeli Government Extremists.” The letter responded to a coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud Party and far-right Religious Zionist and Otzma Yehudit parties.

In Israel, the government’s rightward creep and efforts to overhaul the judiciary were met with weekly protests of hundreds of thousands.

Community members take to Squirrel Hill streets in protest of Israel’s government policies. (Photo by David Rullo)

In Pittsburgh, about 70 Israelis gathered on the corner of Forbes and Murray avenues to protest the Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms. Holding signs reading “Save Israel’s Democracy” and “Israel Must Stay a Democracy” the group returned to the Squirrel Hill corner on multiple Sundays to declare its message.

Months later, Pittsburghers again took to Squirrel Hill’s streets to call attention to Hamas’ kidnapping of 240 people after its barbaric invasion of Israel.

New generation of spiritual leaders arrives in Pittsburgh

A new generation took the pulpit following the retirement of several longstanding rabbis. Though some of Pittsburgh’s new clergy began their posts slightly before 2023, the past year marked an ascent to communal leadership and broader inclusion.

Rabbi Yitzi Genack, who replaced Rabbi Daniel Wasserman at Shaare Torah Congregation, said his congregation is trying to develop programs to increase people’s engagement through classes and prayer. “No matter where you are, you can have the opportunity to grow in your Judaism, your Torah study and in your tefillah,” he said.

Cantor Toby Glaser of Rodef Shalom Congregation said his approach to Jewish music aims to “have something for everyone.” Temple Emanuel of South Hills’ Cantor Kalix Jacobson and Temple Sinai’s Cantor David Reinwald both  emphasized including a variety of new composers to enhance spirituality and inclusiveness.

As Judaism moves farther away from 20th-century norms, many denominational boundaries are blurring, leading to new approaches to practice, several of the spiritual leaders said.

“Demographics have shifted pretty quickly,” Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Daniel Fellman said. “Where the last generation got to ride a wave of growth, this generation is confronting contraction.”

Fellman, who replaced Rabbi Jamie Gibson, said, “There’s a lot of opportunity for creative thinking and looking at new ways of doing things. We must recognize that the path that got us here isn’t the one we can take forward.”

Transition at Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh

After 25 years at its helm, Brian Schreiber stepped down as president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. As part of the transition, Schreiber became chief external affairs officer and special adviser to the new CEO, Jason Kunzman, the JCC’s former chief program officer.

Attendees join hands while saying the Shehecheyanu blessing. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

“This is a joyous moment for me to know that the agency is in such amazing professional hands,” Schreiber said during the organization’s annual meeting.

Kunzman likewise praised his predecessor: “I look forward to the challenge of honoring his legacy, not only at the JCC but within the community as well.”

Violins of Hope

In conjunction with an exhibit that ran at Carnegie Mellon University between Oct. 7 and Nov. 21, Violins of Hope Greater Pittsburgh presented nearly 40 programs, including musical performances and public talks. The events, which drew thousands of attendees, were facilitated by more than 50 community partners.

“Having so many groups come together to develop unique and heartfelt programming around this really speaks to the level of community engagement that’s happening here in Pittsburgh,” Peter Kerwin, CMU’s director of media relations, said.

To mark the end of its seven-week stay, Violins of Hope held a concert featuring violinist Joshua Bell, alongside Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony. The performance, which included Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Ernest Bloch’s “Nigun” from Baal Shem, and Israeli composer Boris Pigovat’s Yizkor, was followed by a public chat between Bell, Honeck and Avshi Weinstein, one of the founders of the Violins of Hope project.

Shortly before the Nov. 25 concert, the collection received a violin that belonged to Ole Steffen Dahl, a member of the Danish resistance during World War II. The instrument had sat in a North Hills closet for almost 20 years.

Kosher food and the JAA

The Jewish Association on Aging announced that the kitchen in Weinberg Terrace, a senior living facility in Squirrel Hill, would no longer be kosher. For those residents desiring kosher food, meals would be prepared at the JAA’s main campus and double-wrapped; a seal from the VAAD Harabonim of Pittsburgh would be placed on the items before delivery to interested residents.

JAA officials said the plan was created to address financial concerns.

Following the announcement, numerous community members denounced the decision. Their discontent was articulated through letters to the Chronicle, messages posted online and during public gatherings.

The JAA responded by meeting with residents and community members.

JAA President and CEO Mary Anne Foley said she understood the community’s concerns.

“We’ve worked with the VAAD on a process that food will be able to be plated and served on real plates and use real silverware instead of plasticware or containers,” she said, “because we will have volunteer mashgiach coverage at Weinberg Terrace during serving meals to our residents.”

Whether a resident chooses kosher or not, the experience will be the same, Board Chair Lou Plung said: “A server will come to them and say, ‘These are the kosher options for dinner tonight.’ They will take the order. The residents will eat off plates and have regular silverware.”

Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, a member of Pittsburgh’s VAAD, expressed his disappointment that the JAA will no longer be exclusively kosher, but said he appreciated the “dedication and commitment by JAA leadership to maintain a ‘mentchlech kosher option.’”

Efforts to support mental health continue

The pandemic brought mental health awareness to the forefront. Though social distancing and other pandemic practices are now less common, the community remained committed to addressing mental health needs.

During the past year, the Friendship Circle of Pittsburgh opened The Beacon, a “space for teens to focus on their wellness and feel supported,” Friendship Circle’s director Rivkee Rudolph said. “We will have trained staff on-site at all times.”

The site’s opening comes at a critical time. In recent years, teens and young adults have experienced measurable rises in loneliness, depression and anxiety.

Contributing factors include school shootings, student debt, unemployment, a barrage of negative news, fear of missing out and “shame in falling short of a social media-worthy standard,” according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Teens gather at The Beacon. (Jack Wolf Photography)

A 2022 National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report found that “suicidal behaviors among high school students increased more than 40% in the decade before 2019,” and that even before the pandemic, mental health challenges were already the “leading cause of death and disability in this age group.”

“Of the 44,000 youths living in the city of Pittsburgh, 20% struggle with their mental health; and suicide is the second-largest cause of death for this same demographic,” JFCS Chief Operating Officer Dana Gold said.

Jewish leaders on Pittsburgh’s college campuses said their students are experiencing higher rates of anxiety post-Oct. 7.

Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, Jewish students at the University of Pittsburgh feel increasingly “alone,” according to Chabad at Pitt’s Rabbi Shmuli Rothstein.

“The mental health needs on campus have skyrocketed,” Chabad of CMU’s Rabbi Shlomo Silverman said. “People are stressed and scared.”

In response to growing mental health needs on campus, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation approved emergency grants totaling $135,000. The funding will go toward supporting students and staff at Hillel International, Hillel JUC, Chabad of Carnegie Mellon University and Chabad House on Campus at the University of Pittsburgh.

Community prepares for Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial

Jury selection for the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial began in April. As a lead-up to the months-long trial, individuals and organizations readied the community for a physically and emotionally demanding experience.

In February, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh held a public meeting with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to discuss violent extremism and hate crimes.

The program was “designed to educate the community on current threats we’re seeing, what to be aware of and most importantly how to report, so we can protect one another as a community,” Federation’s community security director Shawn Brokos said. “It’s part of our ongoing efforts to better prepare the community for the upcoming trial so we can be as informed as possible and ready for anything that may happen.”

As the trial date approached, both within the pages of the Chronicle and at public fora, legal scholars Bruce Ledewitz and David Harris explained the case’s complexities.

“For a death penalty trial, there are certain procedures and a whole different way of running a trial than in a regular, non-capital case,” Harris said.

“It turns what would be an ordinary case into celebrity events. Everybody is being extremely careful. If there were no death penalty, the federal government wouldn’t have gone after this guy,” Ledewitz said.

Alan Hausman, president of the Tree of Life congregation, and Rabbi Jeffrey Myers embrace after the Tree of Life congregation’s “L’hitraot Ceremony” on April 23, 2023. (Alexandra Wimley/Union Progress)

Organizations, including the 10.27 Healing Partnership, Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and JFCS, provided additional programming and resources to prepare the community.

On the eve of the trial, Tree of Life Congregation held a public “l’hitraot ceremony.”

“The next chapter opens tomorrow,” Tree of Life’s rabbi Jeffrey Myers said, “so we needed to close that chapter today.”

Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial

Nearly five years after a gunman entered the Tree of Life building during Shabbat morning services and murdered 11 synagogue-goers in addition to injuring six others, a long-awaited federal trial was held.

Separated by three phases, the three-month trial ended with a federal jury imposing the death penalty. The jurors’ decision represented a unanimous rejection of the defense team’s claim that 115 mitigating factors should result in the gunman receiving life in prison.

Throughout the trial, the Chronicle partnered on daily coverage with the Pittsburgh Union Progress — a team of striking workers from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The partnership between the Chronicle and Union Progress enabled both publications to leverage talent, combine resources and meaningfully cover a case and community that had received international interest for years. Together, the partnering publications produced more than 80 pieces, which represented nearly every aspect of the case.

Antisemitism

Whether it was a Worthington man who used billboards to share hateful messages or offensive graffiti in Summerset, antisemitism was a constant occurrence throughout Pittsburgh in 2023.

During the year, Jewish teens were harassed in Greenfield, antisemitic flyers and stickers were found in Squirrel Hill and Oakland. A hoax caller threatened to “shoot up” the Tree of Life building in Squirrel Hill. And, as jury selection began in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial, online hateful rhetoric increased.

Following the trial’s conclusion, white supremacist Hardy Lloyd was arrested after the FBI filed a complaint against him in the Northern District of West Virginia. Agents arrested Lloyd on charges of obstruction of justice, interstate threats and witness tampering regarding the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter’s trial.

After pleading guilty to the charges, Lloyd was sentenced to 78 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release.

As the year neared completion, antisemitic events increased. Between Oct. 7 and Dec. 7 (two months after the start of the Israel-Hamas war), the ADL recorded 2,031 antisemitic incidents. The group maintained the number represented a 337% increase from the 465 incidents that happened during the same span one year earlier.

In Pittsburgh, college students expressed concerns about safety.

Chabad at Pitt’s Rabbi Shmuli Rothstein told the Chronicle: “Thank God nothing physical has happened, but students are worried about antisemitism.”

Pittsburghers show support of Israel, and visit Israel and D.C.

Following the outbreak of war on Oct. 7, Pittsburghers showed immediate support for Israel by attending vigils, tehillim rallies and other public gatherings.

Several community members, including rabbis and physicians, demonstrated their commitment to the Jewish state by traveling to Israel with colleagues. Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO Jeff Finkelstein and Squirrel Hill resident Michael Milch traveled to Israel with other national leaders. Several members of congregations Poale Zedeck and Shaare Torah headed to Israel on a joint mission just before New Year’s.

Attendees fill the National Mall during a Nov. 14, 2023 “March for Israel.” (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

While many Pittsburghers demonstrated support by heading to Israel, more than 500 residents boarded buses and cars to spend a day in Washington, D.C., alongside an estimated 290,000 others. The Nov. 14 event on the National Mall was organized by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The program, Finkelstein said, was a chance to “show people that we stand with Israel and we stand against antisemitism, which is spiking like we’ve never seen before.”

As 2023 ended, local interest in the Israel-Hamas war remained high. Vigils, fundraisers and weekly demonstrations signaled the community’s ongoing concern.

Heading into 2024, Sunday gatherings on a Squirrel Hill street corner, which often include chants of “Bring them home,” will continue, organizers said, until Hamas releases every hostage. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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