Shaare Torah’s Rabbi Yitzi Genack adapts to new life in Pittsburgh
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Shaare Torah’s Rabbi Yitzi Genack adapts to new life in Pittsburgh

Squirrel Hill spiritual guide is excited to meet people, foster relationships and understand the city's obsession with the Steelers.

Rabbi Yitzi Genack. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Yitzi Genack
Rabbi Yitzi Genack. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Yitzi Genack

Seven weeks have elapsed since former New Jersey dweller Rabbi Yitzi Genack assumed the pulpit at Shaare Torah Congregation. The span, which gardeners know is enough to harvest beetroot, cucumbers and turnips, has permitted the rabbi to plant his communal seeds for future growth.

Genack said he realizes it will take years to yield the fruits of his labor, but that he’s eager to do the work. Since arriving in Squirrel Hill on Aug. 2, the spiritual leader has dedicated his days to meeting Pittsburghers, hearing their stories and reminding himself who is related to whom.

Speaking with the Chronicle, Genack, 38, marveled at the extent to which local generational ties are proudly held.

“There's a lot of richness and legacy here that doesn't exist in other places,” he said.

In trying to explain it to those less familiar with Pittsburgh, Genack said he’s cited the recent births of two baby boys.

Not only do both sets of parents belong to Shaare Torah, but “all four sets of grandparents are in Shaare Torah,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

These sorts of occurrences — or the fact that members of the congregation have been in Pittsburgh for almost 100 years — aren’t akin to the experiences of many other American Jews, the rabbi told the Chronicle.

Genack comes to Shaare Torah after serving Riverdale Jewish Center for 11 years.

Before joining Riverdale’s rabbinic team, he attended Yeshiva University — where he received degrees in mathematics and medieval Jewish history, as well as ordination from the university’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. As a member of RIETS’ Wexner Kollel Elyon, Genack dedicated hours to combining intensive Torah study with developing skills in counseling, conflict resolution and oration.

Moving to Pittsburgh has been “eye-opening,” he said.

Genack described living in the Bronx, in an apartment complex he called “the kibbutz,” but noted even that tightknit community was nothing like Pittsburgh.

This is an extremely “warm and welcoming” place, yet one aspect of Pittsburgh remains surprising: “On Sunday morning, everybody wears jerseys and T-shirts,” the rabbi said of game day attire. “There were even people wearing davening jackets over their jerseys.”

With football season underway, Genack will surely gain greater insight into the region’s near ecumenical obsession with the Steelers. Even so, the rabbi hopes to better understand his congregants and their concerns.

From conversations he’s had since coming to town, Genack has learned that although certain community members have possessed the same bonds and friends for decades, that experience isn’t uniform.

“I want to foster a community that reaches outward,” he said.

Creating an environment where people can meet and befriend those outside their immediate circle is something he hopes will benefit all, including his family.

Genack and his wife Shoshana, a nutritionist who previously worked at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, are parents to five boys, ages 13 to 1.

Jonathan Young, Shaare Torah’s president said it’s been a pleasure welcoming the Genack family to the congregation and the community.

Between seeing the Genack children seamlessly make friends with other kids in the shul and hearing comments from congregants about how “knowledgeable, lovely and wonderful” Shoshana is, Young said Shaare Torah can be excited about its future.

“It’s sort of that feeling when you know you got it right,” Young said of Shaare Torah’s recent hire.

Genack is similarly gracious when speaking about Young, Shaare Torah and Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, who served the congregation since 1996.

“I have tremendous respect for what Rabbi Wasserman did and for the institutions and community that he fostered,” Genack said. “He's a dynamo … All the things that he did — it was clear he never stopped.”

Genack acknowledged that Pittsburgh is a place that prides itself on legacy. Even so, and while praising his predecessor, Genack made clear that he isn’t looking to replicate prior rabbinic models: “I'm not here to fill Rabbi Wasserman’s shoes. I’m going to stand next to them and take my own steps.”

The approach, Genack said, will help the community get to know its newest member while he, in turn, learns more about his congregants and neighbors.

“I want to get to know people, be there with them and foster relationships,” he said. “That’s my personality.” PJC

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

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