While 2021 brought vaccinations and a renewed ability to connect with friends and loved ones, COVID-19 remains a looming presence in daily life. Navigating the seemingly unending pandemic has taken its toll on individuals and organizations throughout the region; as a result, there have been greater calls for mental health awareness and a need to help others and ourselves.
Throughout the year, the Chronicle followed Jewish Pittsburghers and community organizations through the highs and lows of local life. There were births, weddings, anniversaries and other celebrations, yet also considerable losses and fiscal hardships.
Below are our top stories of the past year:
After 10 months of a COVID-related lockdown — a period when window visits between loved ones became the norm — representatives of CVS Health began administering the Pfizer vaccine at Jewish Association on Aging facilities on Jan. 12.
For residents and staff, after such “an incredibly difficult and challenging year,” there is a “sense of optimism that the end is in sight with this virus,” said Deborah Winn-Horvitz, JAA’s president and CEO. “It's been so long since we have had something really to celebrate and to feel very positive about.”
Chasidic rabbi, acclaimed psychiatrist, prolific author and founder of Gateway Rehabilitation Center, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski died Jan. 31, in Israel from COVID. Twerski was 90. Twerski’s intrinsic belief in the value of humanity catapulted him onto an international stage. His more than 60 books mixed the spiritual with the secular, yet it was efforts with Gateway that may prove most lasting. In more than 40 years of work, Twerski likely helped more than 40,000 people recover from substance abuse through rehabilitation at the center.
“Dr. Twerski is our founder, inspiration leader and the person we think of everyday as we execute our mission and vision,” said Gateway Rehabilitation Center CEO James Troup.
After almost 45 years in prison, Charles “Zeke” Goldblum, the son of a Pittsburgh rabbi, was released. Goldblum had been charged with a murder that many believe he did not commit. His life sentence was commuted by Gov. Tom Wolf on Feb. 11.
Eight years after joining Hillel JUC as its senior Jewish educator, Danielle Kranjec moved on from Oakland. Effective March 1, Kranjec became the director of campus initiatives for Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, overseeing the implementation of programming intended to strengthen Jewish peoplehood, identity and pluralism.
During her time at Hillel JUC, Kranjec introduced hundreds of students to formal Jewish life and a corpus of Jewish teachings. She also promoted the eponymous Kranjec Test, which recommends that study source sheets with more than two sources should include at least one non-male identified voice.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto joined leaders from 21 countries in pledging to defeat antisemitism at the first-ever Mayors Summit Against Anti-Semitism, held virtually on March 16. Joining Peduto at the online summit was Jeffrey Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, who credited Peduto and other western Pennsylvania leaders — including former Islamic Center of Pittsburgh executive director Wasi Mohamed — with helping combat antisemitism.
Professor Alexander Star and fellow University of Pittsburgh researchers developed a rapid, COVID-19 antigen test that delivers results faster than a walk around the block. The test, which builds on Star’s earlier research on a marijuana breathalyzer he created, uses tiny wires stitched with coronavirus antibodies. If the antibodies encounter the virus, the electrical current of the wires change, showing a positive result for COVID. The Jewish researcher’s work improves on other rapid COVID testing because it can detect even a few coronavirus molecules in a sample, resulting in fewer false positives and false negatives, he said.
A months-long partnership between the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and the Squirrel Hill Health Center resulted in thousands of people receiving COVID vaccinations. By April 8, the JCC had hosted 19 clinics between its Squirrel Hill and South Hills branches, resulting in 4,730 people getting vaccinated against COVID.
Cynthia Craig and Curt Friehs, co-owners of Chosen Wine, visited Israel in both 2016 and 2018. After being so impressed by the wine they sampled in the Jewish state, the couple decided to open a kosher wine store in Dormont.
Daniel Libeskind, the internationally renowned architect who designed the World Trade Master Plan in New York following 9/11, was chosen as the lead architect to reimagine the site of the Tree of Life building. Libeskind was selected unanimously by Tree of Life’s board of trustees and steering committee. The renovation of the Tree of Life building is part of the congregation’s REMEMBER. REBUILD. RENEW. campaign to commemorate the events of Oct. 27, 2018. Studio Daniel Libeskind is collaborating with Pittsburgh-based Rothschild Doyno Collaborative on the project.
As Hamas terrorists fired rockets into Israel, about 200 Jewish Pittsburghers gathered in Squirrel Hill to show support for the Jewish state. The May 12 event, “A Community Gathering to say Tehilim,” was organized by the Vaad Harabonim of Greater Pittsburgh and included the recitation of Psalms and prayers for the safety and security of Israel and its citizens during Operation Guardian of the Walls.
On May 21, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh organized a rally in its parking lot dubbed “We Stand with Israel: A community Vigil for Peace.” Scores of Jewish Pittsburghers attended, demonstrating their solidarity with Israel.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, in a prepared statement, said they “unequivocally stand in solidarity with Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorists, as any sovereign nation would.”
Pittsburgh stands in solidarity against antisemitism
On June 1, about 400 Pittsburghers showed up at the City-County building downtown at a rally organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh called “Stand Against Antisemitism.” Leaders from the broader community, including elected officials, addressed the crowd.
Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh entered into contract to purchase the St. Rosalia site at 411 Greenfield Avenue, in Pittsburgh’s Greenfield neighborhood. The nearly 70,000-square-foot property includes two former school buildings. In December, the school received $4.5 million in state funding for the renovations.
Acquiring the site and making it the future home of Yeshiva’s Boys School is “linked to the broader strategic plan,” said Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, Yeshiva’s CEO.
On June 8, members of Bnai Emunoh Chabad held a groundbreaking party for two new community mikvahs that are being built to support the growing number of Jews who have moved into the congregation’s Greenfield neighborhood.
Eighteen local Jewish professionals who work with young adults were trained to be “mental health first aiders,” thanks to a recent program offered by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh in partnership with the Jewish Teen Education & Engagement Funder Collaborative — a national nonprofit that aims to increase teen involvement in Jewish life.
The training was held in response to the alarming rise of mental health issues among teens and young adults, organizers said. According to the Centers for Disease control, suicide was the second leading cause of death among people ages 10-24 in 2019. The pandemic, and ensuing isolation, has created significant strain on many young people.
Following a summer in which thousands of campers remained home due to the pandemic, summer 2021 offered an opportunity to return outdoors and renew friendships. Months of planning ensured that camps operated safely.
During the United States’ nearly two decades in Afghanistan, tens of thousands of Afghan nationals gave assistance to the American military and American companies that offered support to their country. Because of their service, 53,000 Afghan nationals are arriving in the U.S. as part of the Special Immigration Visa program. Those coming to Pittsburgh are being assisted by JFCS, a local affiliate of HIAS (originally the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), a national resettlement agency working with the U.S. government.
Nearly eight decades after the collapse of the Nazi regime in Europe, German Jews and elected officials dedicated a new space for the continuance of Jewish studies and worship in Potsdam, Germany. The new European Center for Jewish Learning at the University of Potsdam includes a synagogue, the first in post-war Potsdam; the School of Jewish Theology of the University of Potsdam; and Germany’s two rabbinical seminaries — the Abraham Geiger College, modeled on the North American Reform seminary, and the Conservative Zacharias Frankel College. As part of the Aug. 18 dedication ceremony, the building that houses the Abraham Geiger College — the first liberal rabbinical seminary in Continental Europe since the Shoah — was named after Rabbi Walter Jacob, rabbi emeritus at Rodef Shalom Congregation and co-founder of the college.
The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh headed back to Squirrel Hill. After six years at 826 Hazelwood Avenue in Greenfield, the 41-year-old organization will partner with Chatham University on an exhibit in Squirrel Hill and put other artifacts and materials in storage for the time being.
As the pandemic stretched on, organizations began to see a greater need for mental health services. Jewish spiritual leaders spent the year frequently attending to congregants and other followers. The efforts, however, took their toll. In a jointly authored piece with Public Source, we explored how faith leaders navigate their congregants’ demands while managing their own mental health.
The Eradicate Hate Global Summit 2021, which ran from Oct. 18-20, hosted more than 100 experts on hate and extremism. The experts, most of whom appeared in person at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, were charged with not only sharing insight but spending the next year working on specific “deliverables” that will be evaluated at next year’s summit.
Laura Ellsworth, first partner in charge of global community service initiatives for the law firm Jones Day, co-chaired the summit along with Mark Nordenberg, University of Pittsburgh chancellor emeritus. The massacre at the Tree of Life building loomed large over the summit, which was conceived following the attack, Nordenberg said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in children’s mental health, citing a significant rise in the number of visits at emergency departments for mental health-related emergencies among children and young adults. Representatives from the AAP, AACAP and CHA, which total 77,000 physicians and more than 200 children’s hospitals, mentioned fear, grief, physical isolation and continuing uncertainty as difficulties facing today’s youth. Following the declaration, JFCS asked resiliency expert Dr. Andrew Shatte to visit Pittsburgh, meet with day school students and provide the tools to navigate trauma.
Gov. Tom Wolf announced that Tree of Life Congregation will receive $6.6 million in Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funding from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for “economic, cultural, civic and historical improvement projects in Pennsylvania." The grant, which will be used to rebuild the property, reflects the full amount of funding Tree of Life requested. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.