Temple Ohav Shalom began by building community one family at a time.
It started with a small group of Jewish families in the North Hills that canvassed other Jewish families about their interest in Jewish life.
According to Shara Taylor, they began by going through the phone book, and cold calling people.
“They had a lay leader with a family Torah and they would literally drive the Torah in a station wagon from home to home,” Taylor said.
The group, which named itself the North Hills Jewish Community Center, soon needed meeting spaces larger than members’ living rooms.
Arnie Begler, president of Ohav Shalom, said they met “in church basements, at Northway Mall, wherever they could. Ultimately, they found a space and settled into it.”
Fifty years later, Temple Ohav Shalom is celebrating its founding and growth from a loose affiliation of Jewish families to an established Reform synagogue in Allision Park.
The modern history of Ohav Shalom started to take shape in 1979 when the congregation purchased a former church on Duncan Avenue. “It was a house converted into a church converted into a synagogue,” Taylor said. “It had a sanctuary and classrooms.”
In 1981, the North Hills Jewish Community Center changed its name to Temple Ohav Shalom.
By 1997, the synagogue was “bursting at the seams,” Taylor recalled. “It was beginning to become a fire hazard.”
On a cold day in January 1999, the congregation held a parade, carrying the temple’s Torahs from their old home to a recently purchased building — a former racquetball club converted to a modern synagogue by the architectural firm Rothschild Doyno Collaborative.
Michael Kraus, a historian, artist and Ohav Shalom member, worked with Dan Rothschild to create the decorative stone carvings and bronze ark in the sanctuary.
“Dan had an idea to use something resembling Jerusalem stone,” Kraus said. “I told him I could create a stone veneer that could be laid up like a wall.”
For the bronze doors to the ark, Kraus researched Polish synagogues destroyed during the Holocaust. “One of them had a small Ten Commandments plaque above the bimah. It wasn’t all lined up straight. They were moved around a little, which made it more interesting. The synagogue was in Suchowola, Poland, and was destroyed. The congregants were gathered inside and it was set on fire. The rabbi was forced to watch. It’s a memory piece without having a tag or sign on it. We’re making it live again.”
They’re also making their own 50 years of history come alive with a year-long celebration. The tagline for the commemoration, said Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt, is “kulanu kadimah, which means forward together.”
Aaron Brauser is the chair of the task force for the 50th anniversary, which began in earnest with the synagogue’s Arts Weekend from Nov. 7-10.
“The next event will be the menorah lighting at McCandless Crossing,” Brauser said. “We’re going to highlight that it’s our 50th anniversary and have presentations there.”
Other events already on the calendar but incorporated into the celebration include the Temple’s Purim carnival and its annual fundraiser.
The centerpiece of the anniversary’s observance will be in April, when the temple welcomes musician Noah Aronson for a concert and artist-in-residence weekend. Aronson has been commissioned to create a new piece of music the congregation will share with the larger Jewish community.
“He’s never been to Pittsburgh before,” Weisblatt said. “It’s really special for Ohav.”
The celebration ends in May with a Jewish food festival, which will serve as an open house for the Pittsburgh Jewish community and the North Hills community.
The congregation is currently home to 140 families and it continues to grow. It will soon present a new mission and vision statement to the congregation. It’s also adding a teen lounge to make it “a hub for Jewish teens in the North Hills,” Weisblatt said. “We’ve forged closer ties with the JCC and Federation. We have a great relationship with Chris Herman and the Second Floor. We’ve now officially welcomed BBYO and their North Hills chapter. Their base is now TOS.”
Weisblatt is quick to point out that while teens are an important part of the Temple’s future, the growth of the synagogue depends on broad-based outreach.
“I think it’s about engaging all demographics. You don’t stop learning after your bar or bat mitzvah, you don’t stop learning after you age out of the tot group or when you graduate. We have to engage all people at some point. “
One of those demographics seeing exponential growth is young families with children. “Our preschool is now a full-time preschool for ages 12 months to 5 years, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., for the first time,” said Weisblatt, who attributes the synagogue’s success to a holistic approach to Jewish life. “I think that’s the key. We are the people of a living book. If you experience and live your Judaism, that’s what’s made us successful and made our people thrive for thousands of years.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.