Jews in Westmoreland County can look forward to expanded programming this year thanks to a revival of the Westmoreland Jewish Community Council.
“Part of our mission is to bring educational and cultural events to Jews that live in Westmoreland County,” said Rabbi Sara Perman, former spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg. “We’re trying to reach out to both affiliated and unaffiliated Jews.”
Perman is part of the newly reconstituted Westmoreland JCC that once served as a primary vehicle for Jewish events in that area.
When Perman moved to Greensburg in the mid-‘80s to begin her tenure at Emanu-El Israel, the WJCC was part of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Federation staff member Janet Engelhart Gutterman lived in the community and helped create programs for the region.
“She actually served all of the smaller communities — Little Washington and Butler, all of those areas,” Perman said.
The organization’s programming included speaking engagements by Israeli diplomat Abba Eban and actor Theodore Bikel, a monthly luncheon speaker series for seniors, screenings with JFilm, kids’ programming and Mitzvah Day.
Engelhart Gutterman eventually moved from Greensburg, becoming the first female executive director of the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island.
As synagogues in Latrobe and Mt. Pleasant closed and Jewish communities contracted along the Mon and away from the city, Pittsburgh’s Federation no longer dedicated an employee to Westmoreland County, but continued to fund programs and services, including directing money for security upgrades at Emanu-El Israel, said Brian Eglash, the Federation’s chief development officer.
Westmoreland County Jewish community members, Eglash said, also have access to Federation assistance programs such as the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry and the Jewish Scholarship Service of Greater Pittsburgh, funded by Federation and administered by Jewish Family and Community Services.
The newly reorganized WJCC is getting ready to launch its first programs in several years, creating virtual events and featuring a variety of local speakers.
On Sunday, March 21, at 11 a.m., the Westmoreland JCC welcomes Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center, to discuss the archive’s Jewish cookbook collection. The virtual program will also include a cooking demonstration of a Passover dessert featured in one of the cookbooks.
Perman said Lidji’s talk is emblematic of the sort of programming the Council intends to feature — educational and cultural programs that do not compete with any synagogue.
The Council also is working with the Holocaust Center at Seton Hill University to prepare a Yom HaShoah program. The event will honor survivors who recently died, including Shulamit Bastacky.
On Tuesday, May 25, a member of the New Community Chevra Kadisha will discuss burial traditions.
There are also plans for an August picnic that will include the creation of a mosaic for the High Holidays.
“I’m really thrilled with the committee because they’ve been proactive and very involved,” Perman said.
The continuation of Jewish life in Westmoreland County is important to Loren Vivio, a member Emanu-El Israel. She recently joined the Westmoreland JCC at Perman’s invitation.
“[Perman] knows I have a great interest in keeping the Jewish spirit alive in this area,” said Vivio. “It’s very difficult, because there are very few Jewish people in the Mon Valley area.”
The pandemic has presented an opportunity for the WJCC to create virtual programming that does not require travelling, Vivio noted.
But she also is a realist.
“There are a lot of people attempting to do good things here, but for Jewish culture particularly, there’s no foundation for it right now,” she said.
Vivio thinks an organization like the WJCC — which combines areas like Monessen, Latrobe, Greensburg and even Washington, Pennsylvania — will have a broader appeal and be able to create better programming than any individual community.
“We can create a spark of interest here,” she said. PJC
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