Rabbi Aaron Bisno takes the bimah at Temple Ohav Shalom
TransitionFamiliar face, new congregation

Rabbi Aaron Bisno takes the bimah at Temple Ohav Shalom

“I feel really fortunate that the opportunity was available in Pittsburgh, where I already have roots,” Bisno said.

Rabbi Aaron Bisno stands with Temple Ohav Shalom President Aaron Brauser in front of the congregation's ark. (Photo by David Rullo)
Rabbi Aaron Bisno stands with Temple Ohav Shalom President Aaron Brauser in front of the congregation's ark. (Photo by David Rullo)

“How can I help?”

The question was posed by Rabbi Aaron Bisno to Temple Ohav Shalom leadership to see if he could be of service. Bisno knew that the congregation had been without a permanent rabbi since Jeremy Weisblatt left abruptly in November 2022, and he wanted to see if he could assist the North Hills Reform congregation.

“I approached the leadership in late November, early December [2023],” Bisno said. “I wanted to be helpful in January or February if I could be. We started talking about joining the congregation in a professional role.”

That casual conversation began a relationship between Bisno, who served as senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation from 2004 until 2022, and Ohav Shalom. It blossomed in early April when the congregation’s leadership announced that Bisno was hired as its permanent rabbi.

Bisno said that over the last few months, he came to care about the Ohav Shalom community and viewed the position as a “wonderful opportunity.”

“It’s a growing community,” he noted. “It’s an underappreciated and underserved Jewish community. Ohav Shalom has been here a long time, and its Jewish community has been growing for decades.”

Bisno joins a seasoned cast that has been a stabling force in a time of rabbinic change at the temple over the last several years, including the Director of Ruach and Youth Engagement Grant Halasz, Andrea Guthrey, director of religious school and Amy Jacobs, the congregation’s Center for Early Learning director.

The leadership, Board President Aaron Brauser said, is indicative of the congregation.

“There’s a strong core, families that are dedicated to keeping the North Hills Jewish community going,” he said. “We’ve been in this building 25 years, which is significant, and the congregation is 50 years old.”

Bisno said that his priorities are helping the congregation meet its goals and be successful.

“Let’s figure out how we define success in six months, 12 months, 24 months, so your time can be productive,” he said.

What Bisno isn’t looking to do is transform the congregation in his image. There is, he said, high value in the phrase minhag hamakom — keeping local customs.

Instead, the rabbi is happy to simply be a part of Ohav Shalom’s congregational life.

“I feel really fortunate that the opportunity was available in Pittsburgh, where I already have roots,” Bisno said. “I have a son still in high school and want to continue to make my life here. I’m really grateful that the stars aligned such that this opportunity was available.”

The congregation has responded positively to its anticipated stability, something they’ve missed over the last few years, even with the help of Rabbi Emily Meyer, who served as a visiting rabbi for the last six months, Brauser said.

“We feel extremely fortunate,” he said. “We missed someone that could instruct and teach and communicate and connect with the congregation, along with all the life cycle events and counseling, and those sorts of things.”

That includes continuing to grow the teen and young adult communities which have expanded over the last several years.

“I met yesterday with Haliel Selig [BBYO city director] and she assures me that the population out here is really large and yet to be fully engaged,” Bisno said. “It’s just a matter of whether we can meet them and provide for their needs,” he said.

Bisno is no stranger to building relationships, something he did in Shadyside and the city’s East End, first at Rodef Shalom, then as a rabbi-in-residence at Calvary Episcopal Church. He also served as a concierge rabbi, leading his own High Holiday services last year, and as the founder of the Center for Interfaith Collaboration. He will continue some of those efforts while serving Ohav Shalom.

“I’m proud of the relationships I have and intend to continue to cultivate those friendships and relationships,” Bisno said. “I look forward to growing those here in the North Hills.”

The rabbi stressed the importance of interpersonal relationships, especially since Oct. 7, saying that while some of the relationships have been challenged, “my experience is that those personal relationships have allowed us to get through the uncomfortable tensions.”

Both Bisno and Brauser see opportunities on the horizon for an increase in adult education, including a revived Torah study and discussions about Israel and the current state of the religious or political landscapes in the community.

Brauser said that the board and congregation are enthusiastic about Bisno accepting the permanent rabbi role.

“Everyone is extremely excited,” he said. “It has created a significant amount of energy.”

The congregation, Brauser said, will take the summer months to define its vision.

Bisno, Brauser said, “always talks about history versus traditions. That’s something that’s resonated with the board. We do a lot of things here because it’s the way we’ve always done them. Rethinking how to do things is very exciting.”

Ohav Shalom is the latest local congregation to see changes in its rabbinic leadership. Over the last several years, Rodef Shalom, Shaare Torah, Temple Emanuel of South Hills and Temple Sinai have experienced clergy changes.

“It’s a different rabbinic landscape than it was five years ago,” Bisno noted. “All of the congregations are still here — they’re just recognizing different new leaders and new staff configurations.”

As for long-term plans, Bisno is happy to allow the needs of Ohav Shalom to dictate what comes next.

“If the decision is that it makes sense to continue, OK,” Bisno said. “If the decision is that it makes sense to bring in a new ordinee in two years, who has a 40-year career ahead of him, OK, then that’s where we want to put ourselves.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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