Studying Community: ‘Immersed’ in Jewish life
Beyond the numbers2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study

Studying Community: ‘Immersed’ in Jewish life

Jewish engagement explored

The Dvorins are part of what the Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study categorizes as “Immersed."(Clockwise from left Ian, David, Sam, Lisa and Zoe). Photo by Dmitriy Babichenko.
The Dvorins are part of what the Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study categorizes as “Immersed."(Clockwise from left Ian, David, Sam, Lisa and Zoe). Photo by Dmitriy Babichenko.

Lisa Dvorin’s son, Sam, began wearing a kippah full time in January 2017. For the South Hills teen, the physical act of wearing the headpiece helps him feel more engaged with his Jewish identity and serves as a visual representation of his belief system.

“It was in large part because of the growing hate crimes, hate rhetoric and anti-Semitism,” explained Lisa Dvorin. “He had an epiphany and realized, ‘I’m a minority that no one would realize is a minority,’ so he started wearing it full time. In the South Hills, I can’t remember seeing anyone wear a kippah outside of a synagogue setting, but he does.”

The Dvorins are among the 16% of Jewish Pittsburghers who are “immersed” in Jewish life, as defined by the 2017 Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and conducted by researchers at Brandeis University. Those Jews who fall into the study’s “immersed” category are highly engaged in all aspects of Jewish life, including family holiday celebrations, ritual practices, personal activities and communal activities.

While the study does not define precisely what “engagement” means, it does categorize Pittsburgh’s Jewish community into five overarching patterns of Jewish behavior based on responses to a broad range of questions. Those categories are: “immersed”, “connected,” “involved,” “holiday” and “minimally involved.”

Raimy Rubin, the Federation’s manager of impact measurement, likes to use these terms when discussing Jewish engagement because they are “based on behaviors and attitudes” rather than beliefs or self-identification. Using these terms allows the discussion of engagement to include “a lot more detail than we had in the past.” Rubin explained.

The Dvorin family is affiliated with Temple Emanuel of South Hills, where Lisa teaches kindergarten classes for the Reform congregation’s Torah Center. Until recently, she also created and organized its monthly Rosh Chodesh gatherings.

Lisa and her family – husband David, and children Sam, 17, Zoe, 16, and Ian, 13 – celebrate all of the major Jewish holidays at home and attend Shabbat services on Zoom, while recognizing that, for them, modern life sometimes rubs against tradition and ritual.

“Almost, without exception, every Friday I make challah, we light candles, do blessings over the kids, the kiddush, motzi. Being Reform and living in the world we live in, often times, Saturday is the busy time. As much as we can though, we are mindful of it. I try not to buy things on Shabbat and if the kids say, ‘Oh, I need that,’ I’ll ask, ‘It’s Shabbat can we get it tomorrow?’

“With having teenagers, we have to be looser,” she continued. “If they want to do something with their friends I always ask, ‘Does it have to be Friday night?’ and if it does we’ll let them do it, we just say, ‘We’ll miss you.’”

Engagement extends for the Dvorins beyond their front door and Temple Emanuel. Sam was involved in the local BBYO chapter until earlier this year, when college applications demanded greater attention. Ian is a counselor-in-training at the South Hills Jewish Community Center, where they are members.

The family donates to Jewish organizations they feel strongly about including the Federation, the JCC, Chabad and Mazon, which works to end hunger among people of all faiths. Additionally, all three Dvorin children attended Jewish day camp and Sam and Zoe both spent summers at overnight Camp Harlam.

Despite the pandemic currently keeping Temple Emanuel shuttered, Lisa has worked to maintain a connection with her students at the Torah Center and keep them engaged.

“I sent my students something in the mail every week, whether it was an art project, letter or some stickers,” she said. “Plus, I could tell it was going to be difficult to teach over Zoom, so I made short videos. I did one for Passover that had little puppets for the plagues and then I did a tutorial of how to sing ‘Let My People Go.’”

Comprehensive engagement
Judaism suffuses Yikara Levari’s life. The Squirrel Hill resident is the 5-12 Girls Assistant Principal at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh. She belongs to the Orthodox Congregations Poale Zedeck and Shaare Torah with her husband, Itamar, and their children – three boys and three girls aged between 15 months and 15 years old.

“Judaism is part of every aspect of our lives,” Yikara stated. “We don’t really have much in our lives without Judaism, at least I don’t. It’s my line of work and my entire life.”

Many of those categorized as immersed by the Community Study share this sense of pervasiveness with Yikara. Ninety-six percent of those who are “immersed” are synagogue members and virtually all observe most traditional rituals. One hundred percent of those who fall into this classification attend High Holiday services and 99% fast on Yom Kippur.

Of those identified by the study as “immersed,” 66% keep kosher, including the Levaris. And while ritual and tradition are essential to her Jewish engagement, Yikara is also engaged culturally to her Judaism.

The family matriarch occasionally watches Jewish-themed television shows and reads Jewish-themed books and magazines, although she more often reads religious texts because of her teaching responsibilities at Hillel Academy. Her husband, a doctor, spends much of his free time in the world of Jewish study as well, taking part in educational opportunities offered by the Kollel Jewish Learning Center.

Yikara and her husband stay up to date on what is happening in Israel as do 93% of those who are fall under the Community Study’s “immersed” category. Itamar was born in Israel, which may account for some of his interest in seeking out Israeli news and current affairs.

Yikara is among the 62% of Jewish Pittsburghers, according to the Community Study, who believe that is important to have a connection to the local Pittsburgh community. She also feels strongly connected to the national and international Jewish world, she said. Because of the pandemic, those connections are now mostly online.

“As much as technology and social media can be harmful, it also has kept me connected,” she said. “There are a lot of religious women on social media who have running Instagram stories that I follow and find inspirational, that could just be recipes, takes on kids and thoughts on stuff that’s going on now. The majority of my community is in Pittsburgh, but I definitely stay connected online. Because of my work, I am in touch with other educators. Because of what is going on, everybody wants to make sure different communities are OK.”

Finding a way in
It was the search for greenspace that initially engaged Nadine Lehrer with the Pittsburgh Jewish community.

Nadine and her family were living in the city and searching for a community garden where they could volunteer. After being turned away from a few potential sites, they heard Adat Shalom had a garden that had been started by students at Chatham University several years ago and was now mostly ignored. The family – Nadine, her husband Mike, and their four children – made the drive to the North Hills synagogue several times a week before finally moving to Gibsonia.

The family, who has since moved back to the city, has become more engaged with the synagogue through their time rehabilitating the garden.

Nadine Lehrer and her family found engagement through working in Adat Shalom’s garden. (From top: Michael, Nadine, Li’el, Oren, Eytan and Noa)

Nadine was raised in a Conservative household but her husband is not Jewish. Their four children – Eytan, 8, Li’el, 7, Oren, 5 and Noa, 3 – all have Hebrew names, reflecting Nadine’s heritage, but share a surname, Cochran, with their father.
The couple has decided to raise their children to be “really rooted in and knowledgeable about Judaism,” Nadine explained.
To that end, the family celebrates Jewish holidays at home and goes to Shabbat services when able.

“The household is pretty Jewish,” Nadine said. “We do a lot of PJ Library books and CDs.”

Prior to working in Adat Shalom’s garden, it was sometimes difficult to observe as many Jewish traditions as they might like, Nadine said, citing time as the primary constraint.

“With so many kids, so young, and not living in Squirrel Hill…we found it very hard to get out of the house, so I would say we were not involved in the synagogue community,” she said.

Now living in Squirrel Hill, Nadine teaches at Chatham University. Her husband also is a teacher.

As with many other Jewish families, Lisa and her husband decided to become more engaged when it was time for their oldest son, Eytan, to begin attending Hebrew school.

The family will soon be purchasing a home, moving from the city once again to Shaler Township. The garden at Adat Shalom will keep them connected to the synagogue, said Nadine, who considers being Jewish an important part of her identity. Judaism also affects the decisions the couple makes about raising their children.

“For us, there’s a really important sense of balance,” she said. “For me, being Jewish was always an important part of my identity. My parents were both immigrants, my grandparents were Holocaust survivors, so there was a really strong cultural Jewish influence that was a little bit religious as well. I think there’s a strong balance between how you feel rooted in a Jewish community and understand people in other parts of the world and other communities.”

That Jewish influence extends beyond Hebrew school and working in a synagogue’s garden.

“We light Shabbat candles and do all the blessing and brachot and Havdalah and we do long Passover seders with my family and brothers,” she said. “The kids usually have off for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, so we usually go to services for that and sometimes I’ll pull them out of school for Simchat Torah.”

Raising their children in Jewish ethics is also important, she said.

“The idea of feeding your pets before yourself, these things come up in our house in this sort of middle ground of Jewishness. We’ve been pretty active in trying to create a Jewish home, but it hasn’t been didactic.”

While the coronavirus pandemic has meant in-person community has been more difficult to find, Nadine said her family has taken the opportunity to find ways to be more engaged.

“We’ve gone to Zoom services at Adat Shalom more than we had gone to in-person services,” she said, noting that the digital offering helped to overcome practicalities like snack time and distance.

The Federation’s Rubin understands that while “immersed” families like the Dvorins, Levaris and Lehrer/Cochrans are highly engaged with their Judaism, 25% of Jewish Pittsburghers are just “minimally involved” or involved with Judaism primarily on holidays, according to the Community Study.

“We have to find onramps for the unengaged because they’re not coming to us,” he said. “ We have to create opportunities for them that are attractive, that they want to be at and that are meaningful. That is the way to engage them and create really strong relationships.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at

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