South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh (SHJP) is beginning a new chapter. The entity, which launched in July 2014 as a community engagement initiative through the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and moved to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in 2017, is evolving to meet current demands.
With the initial funding running out and COVID-19 largely eradicating in-person gatherings, the JCC, with input from community partners, is reevaluating both the role of SHJP and how the JCC can serve the South Hills Jewish community, said Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of the JCC.
SHJP will remain under the JCC’s auspices and be overseen by Fara Marcus. The JCC’s director of development and strategic marketing, Marcus will manage SHJP’s digital presence and continue the group’s longstanding efforts to create collaboration between area partners, including Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, Chabad of the South Hills, Congregation Ahavath Achim (The Carnegie Shul) and Temple Emanuel of South Hills.
When SHJP launched in 2014, it attempted to address a disconnect between area institutions.
“There was Temple Emanuel and Beth El and Chabad, but they weren’t doing anything together,” said Linda Simon, a former JCC board chair. “And if you were a Mt. Lebanon Temple kid, you didn’t know an Upper St. Clair Beth El kid.”
SJHP brought the groups together and provided alternative programming that operated in collaboration with the congregations. Events ranged from welcoming U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb to a town hall and co-sponsoring a talk by bestselling author Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, to film screenings and community-wide events marking Purim, Chanukah and Israel Independence Day.
“Our goal was really to be the one-stop shop for newcomers and provide direction in an educational sense,” said Jonathan Fischer, a former vice chair of SHJP’s advisory council. “We wanted to work with the synagogues and the JCC and Chabad to provide extra resources for folks looking for more Jewish resources in the South Hills.”
In its heyday, SHJP, which was staffed by Director Rob Goodman and Program Coordinator David Rullo (now a staff writer for the Chronicle), supported more than 60 programs, welcoming a total of almost 6,800 participants, per year.
“Rob did a tremendous job,” said Matt Schwartz, a former president of SHJP’s advisory council. “Without his leadership, creativity and ability to drive people to events, South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh wouldn’t have been as successful as it is.”
The group achieved many of its original funders’ goals. Shortly before its 2014 inception, two donors — one of whom is a South Hills resident — provided the Federation with $1 million to support existing South Hills Jewish institutions and develop new community engagement. By July 2015, the Federation had raised an additional $1 million toward those efforts, with the sum to be spent during the next five years.
In 2017, South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh moved from the Federation to the JCC. The shift recognized the JCC’s experience in the South Hills and its ability to deliver meaningful programs.
Although the funding was finite, the JCC recognized the inherent value of SHJP. In addition to a disconnect between South Hills congregations, there also was division between the South Hills and Squirrel Hill Jewish communities that SHJP addressed.
“For a long time there was a belief from many people in Squirrel Hill that you cannot be Jewish in Pittsburgh if you do not live in Squirrel Hill,” said Simon.
That mindset failed to appreciate the differences between the two communities and led to many missteps. “The South Hills is a unique community and it is not Squirrel Hill,” Simon said.
“We don’t have one place where all the Jews live,” said Fischer. “The synagogues are spread out.”
SHJP did not re-create a blueprint of what worked in Squirrel Hill, but provided opportunities for enrichment in the South Hills with an awareness of its own community’s relationships and needs.
Whether it’s supporting J Line South Hills, maintaining the group’s digital presence, ensuring that conversations continue between the congregations or using money reserved from the initial funds to continue operating annual events, like the annual Purim carnival — once it is safe to resume large in-person gatherings — the JCC is committed to meaningfully reaching South Hills Jewish residents, said Schreiber.
According to the Federation-commissioned 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, of the 49,200 people in the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish community, 20% live in the South Hills.
Although the SHJP will look different moving forward, the JCC is dedicated to bolstering Jewish lives in the South Hills, explained Simon.
“People out here want community and are very committed to their Judaism,” she said. “All of the agencies have to understand that, and I have confidence that the JCC gets that. Will there be fits and starts? Probably. But the commitment is there and people should feel that someone sees us and values us.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.