Katie Holmes converted to Judaism in 2017, the same year she began volunteering for The Aleph Institute.
The 37-year-old has a strong interest in the prison system and believes no one should be judged for the worst moment in their life. She finds it unjust that, for many serving prison time, their offense becomes the sum total of who they are in other people’s eyes, she said.
Holmes is among the 39% of Jewish Pittsburghers who engage in volunteerism, according to the 2017 Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and conducted by researchers at Brandeis University.
The Squirrel Hill resident had a Conservative conversion but is now converting to Orthodox Judaism, partially because of her work with Aleph and the influence of Rabbi Moishe Vogel, the executive director of the institute’s northeast region.
“I think volunteering has definitely helped my journey,” Holmes said. “There is a great deal of information you have to learn, and I get frustrated when I can’t remember every detail, but when I get out in the community and actually work with someone to perform a mitzvah, then I feel connected to Judaism again and that helps me to continue the process.”
Holmes, a project coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy, worked with Aleph’s Dorothy Program, visiting patients in state hospitals, long-term medical facilities, nursing homes and those confined in private homes. Because of the pandemic, she hasn’t been able to visit patients so she’s been helping with other tasks, such as distributing groceries and food donated as part of Aleph’s partnership with the 412 Food Rescue, and delivering clothing to the National Council for Jewish Women.
Holmes said she hopes to eventually assume leadership positions for the causes she supports, a trend shared by 15% of Pittsburgh’s Jewish population, according to the Community Study.
South Hills native and Reed Smith attorney Max Louik joined the board of directors at the Midwife Center for Birth & Women’s Health earlier this year. Prior to his involvement, the center did not have a lawyer on its board, he said. He feels strongly about the organization’s mission, partially because of the experience he and his wife, Kate, had during the birth of their two daughters.
Louik also serves as co-chair of Temple Emanuel of South Hills’ LGBTQ+ Committee, which is transitioning to the Reform congregation’s Diversity Inclusion Committee. And, at work, Louik participates in his firm’s Name Change Project, which provides pro bono legal name change services to low-income, transgender, gender nonconforming and nonbinary individuals.
“I believe that volunteering, giving of your time in these type of endeavors, is a mitzvah,” he said, “and certainly informed by the Jewish moral and ethical teachings of my parents, community and congregation.”
Louik believes it is important for Jews to give of their time to both secular and Jewish causes.
“I’ve never approached it from the perspective of ‘I should be doing some things Jewish and some things secular’ but it is important, I suppose, to show that Jews, consistent with our moral values, do more than serve their own communities,” he said.
Since his graduation from Brandeis University, Louik has volunteered for and helped lead a variety of organizations including South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh, where he served on the board, and AmeriCorps.
About 28% of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community volunteers with a non-Jewish organization.
Volunteerism is over-represented in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community when compared to the rest of the country. According to the Corporation for National & Community Service, 29% of Pittsburgh residents volunteer, ranking 16th in the top 51 metropolitan areas measured. The Pittsburgh Jewish community edged out the top-ranking metro area, Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, Minnesota/Wisconsin, 39% to 37%.
Volunteering can be an expression of one’s Jewish identity, according to Raimy Rubin, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s manager of impact measurement.
“Volunteering is an excellent example of one of the ways someone can express their Judaism or feel connected to Judaism, outside of ritual observance,” he said.
The Community Study categorizes the Pittsburgh 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.” Volunteering for Jewish causes coincides with engagement: 41% of those identified as “immersed” and 33% of those identified as “connected” volunteered for Jewish organizations during the month studied in the survey; conversely, only 1% of those “minimally involved” did so.
For Rubin, that makes sense.
“When you’re in that ‘immersed’ category, very often your life is enmeshed in the Jewish community,” he explained. “Whether you’re spending your time in a synagogue or at your kid’s day school, that’s where your social circle is. That’s where your extracurricular life is outside of work. So, in many ways, that’s your ecosystem and where you want to give back and volunteer your time.”
For Cindy Goodman-Leib, professional and volunteer activities overlap. The executive director of the Jewish Assistance Fund has volunteered for a variety of Jewish organizations including the Federation’s Community Relations Council, where she served as board chair. She would be considered “immersed” according to the Community Study.
Goodman-Leib, who lives in Squirrel Hill, has volunteered with the Anti-Defamation League and 2 For Seder. Her belief in tikkun olam also has been reflected in the time she has given to secular organizations such as the Center for Victims, Reading is Fundamental and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s Education and Neighborhood Reinvestment Transition Team.
Goodman-Leib traces her desire to stand up for the marginalized — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — to an event that occurred in her affluent, Philadelphia high school: A minority teammate was threatened with a knife by another student.
“Somebody had made it very clear she wasn’t supposed to be there,” recalled Goodman-Leib. “That was the first opportunity I had to be fully present with somebody. I couldn’t take away the pain and fear she felt but I could be there with her. And that was my introduction to racial justice.”
Goodman-Leib is a member of Beth Shalom Congregation and has served on the Conservative synagogue’s board of directors. She was recently named the board chair for Hillel at the Klehr Center for Jewish Life at Franklin & Marshall College and serves as a board member for the Meanings of October 27, an oral history documenting reflections from the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life building.
“I believe in the power of presence and the power of relationships and the inclination people have to be connected and part of a community,” she said. “So, when something happens and you wake up and start your day and you wonder what to do about the feelings you’re feeling, volunteering provides people an opportunity to do something meaningful and make a difference in the world. I’m motivated to volunteer because of how much I’ve gained in my life.”
South Hills resident Bob Silverman is the immediate past chair of the CRC, taking the role after Goodman-Leib’s tenure. The Pittsburgh native led the board during the Oct. 27 Tree of Life building massacre and through the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. His CRC work included forging and maintaining relationships with communities outside of the Jewish sphere.
“The Muslim community, the Hindu community, certainly the Black community,” he said. “We would partner with these various communities to show our support.”
Silverman is part of the 50-64 age demographic, which, along with the 35-49 group, is most likely to take leadership roles in Jewish organizations. As a member of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, he is also a Conservative Jew who, according to the study, have the highest level of volunteering in leadership roles.
Silverman has worked to instill the importance of volunteering to his sons, ages 18, 23 and 25. His youngest son is helping register voters for the upcoming elections.
“I feel that the Jewish religion certainly talks about tikkun olam and welcoming the stranger into your home,” Silverman said. “There are many aspects of Judaism that talk about giving and looking outside of your own self, there’s a lot of messages there. I feel that it is a very strong aspect of Judaism.”
Nina Butler runs Bikur Cholim, a grassroots nonprofit that assists patients and their families who wish to observe Jewish traditions while being treated in area hospitals. A member of Squirrel Hill’s Orthodox community, Butler also devotes some of her time to chair the Arc of Greater Pittsburgh, a division of Achieva, which empowers and supports people with disabilities and families.
As an Orthodox Jew, Butler’s volunteerism in secular organizations is relatively uncommon. The Community Study reports that while 32% of Pittsburgh’s Orthodox Jews volunteer, only 10% devote time to non-Jewish causes.
A guiding principle in Butler’s work, she said, is “am echad” — one people responsible for one another — and she understands the needs of families caring for a sick member. Her son suffered from cystic fibrosis and passed away in 2004.
“We practically lived in the hospital,” she said. “Receiving is so difficult, but we were so broken. My volunteering to assist people with sick family members won’t bring my son back but the knowledge I acquired over those 24 years is now serving a positive purpose.”
Butler also has volunteered with JFCS, Congregation Poale Zedeck and the Special Needs Task Force at the University of Pittsburgh, serving at one time on all of those organizations’ boards.
Chris Hall, a member of Congregation Beth Shalom, believes it is possible to both support Israel and work to strengthen the local community through his synagogue membership.
“American Jews have a lot of things to worry about at home,” Hall said. “I would lump the pandemic and upcoming election into that. At the end of the day, Americans are capable of doing more than one thing at a time by dedicating our efforts to justice and safety and security in America while also thinking about what’s happening in Israel.”
Hall is the chair of Derekh, the Conservative congregation’s adult education program. The committee runs several hundred events every year. Hall finds most of his volunteer opportunities through Beth Shalom but also has been making phone calls leading up to the election.
One outside factor shaping volunteerism in the Pittsburgh Jewish community has been the COVID-19 pandemic. Until the virus forced the closure of businesses and activities, Julie Harris had not volunteered.
The New Light Congregation member worked as a freelance musician with Chani Altein, co-director of Chabad of Squirrel Hill, playing music for the Sound of Jewish Music program, as a music teacher at Community Day School and did some private tutoring.
Once schools closed, the 59-year-old found herself with available time and reached out to Chabad to see how she could help. She now delivers Shabbat packages to Pittsburghers who are homebound.
“When everything shut down, I actually had the time to volunteer because there went all my gigs,” she said. “I had nothing but time on my hands. I wanted to do something with my day and continue with some structure.”
Taking a closer look at volunteerism, like other topics in the Community Study, helped create a larger portrait of Jewish Pittsburgh, noted the Federation’s Rubin.
“We group people into these categories that we manufacture, and the data tells us where each person falls,” he said. “Volunteering isn’t quite as strong an indicator of Jewish engagement as attending a Passover seder, but it is an indicator, and when you begin to group it with other traits it begins to paint a picture.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.