Thinking suburbs: Jewish communities with distinct identities
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Studying CommunityTaking a trek to the heart of Jewish suburbia

Thinking suburbs: Jewish communities with distinct identities

Jewish suburban life varies depending on region and community

Volunteers from the South Hills Jewish community prepare items for food pantries on Mitzvah Day, 2017. 
Photo provided by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Volunteers from the South Hills Jewish community prepare items for food pantries on Mitzvah Day, 2017. Photo provided by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

Diverse, sprawling and growing.

According to the 2017 Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, 43% of Jewish households now call Pittsburgh’s suburban communities home. That number represents a 7% increase from Federation’s last study in 2002.

The study counted three distinct suburban regions: the South Hills, the North Hills (including Fox Chapel) and the “rest of region.” The latter category is comprised of the eastern suburban communities and several other small towns.

What does it mean to be a Jew living in the Pittsburgh suburbs? Does a Jewish family in Hampton Township have the same concerns as a family in Mt. Lebanon? Are there lessons to be gleaned for the community and Jewish institutions from Monroeville or Fox Chapel? Is it even fair to think of suburban Jewish regions when each is comprised of so many distinct boroughs and townships?

While the study didn’t ask individuals and families why they decided to live in the suburbs rather than Squirrel Hill or other parts of the city, there is anecdotal evidence that the primary factors were good schools and affordable housing, according to Raimy Rubin, the manager of impact measurement for the Federation. Rubin is the point person for the community study and has been sifting through the survey’s results since it was completed in 2017.

South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh Director Rob Goodman is quick to emphasize that the South Hills dominates the rankings of the best school districts in the Pittsburgh area. He points out that four South Hills school districts are featured in the top 10: Mt. Lebanon, Upper St. Clair, South Fayette and Peters Township.

These schools are one of the main drivers for young families moving into the South Hills, according to Goodman. He mentioned affordable housing, safe neighborhoods and ease of transportation to and from the city as other amenities transplants find attractive.

Three more of the top school districts reside in the North Hills: North Allegheny, Fox Chapel and Hampton Township. Murrysville’s Franklin Regional is included as well, pushing the total to eight of the top 10 Pittsburgh area school districts that call the suburbs home.

Fox Chapel’s Adat Shalom Synagogue President Amy Himmel explained that once a family decides to live in the suburbs, “they’ll figure out how to practice Judaism around that.”

More than 130 BBYO Keystone Mountain Region members learned the history and traditions of their youth group during New Member Weekend, Jan. 25 to 27, 2017 held at Adat Shalom.

That practice may mean one has to consider both travel time and geography, according to Allison Park’s Temple Ohav Shalom President Arnie Begler.

Begler said for instance that those keeping kosher in the North Hills are able to utilize Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Giant Eagle but most likely also have to travel into Squirrel Hill for items not stocked at those locations.

Rabbi Mendy Schapiro of Chabad of Monroeville explained that while there may be an occasion to make the short ride into the city many staples can be found on the shelves of local grocery stores.

The availability of those products is welcome, as the rabbi acknowledged in Pittsburgh there is “tunnel syndrome” affecting those unwilling to make the 20-minute ride to Murray Avenue Kosher because of the Squirrel Hill tunnel and fear of confronting traffic.

Both Schapiro and Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum of Chabad of the South Hills go into the city each day, transporting their children to the Yeshiva Schools. For those who have decided to raise their families in the suburbs because of the schools, Jewish supplemental education is an important facet considered.

Many local synagogues offer robust Hebrew schools preparing students for bar and bat mitzvahs. Once these life cycle events have been reached, the JCC of Pittsburgh has worked to engage the suburban communities through The Second Floor and J Line.
J Line offers eighth through 12th graders the opportunity for continuing Jewish education in both Squirrel Hill and the South Hills. The South Hills program is presented in partnership with Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, Temple Emanuel of South Hills and South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh and is taught at the two synagogues.

Chris Herman, division director of Jewish life for the JCC, understands that Squirrel Hill is not the center of engagement for suburban Jewish teens. He explained that the organization works to “collaborate and be a resource to strengthen engagement.” That collaboration may mean a program like

J Line – South Hills or it could mean helping North Hills teens find a way into the city by picking them up weekly in a bus for classes offered in Squirrel Hill.

“Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt said he wanted to connect their students to J Line in Squirrel Hill,” Herman explained.
That doesn’t mean that the rabbi has ceded teen engagement to the city, according to Herman who has worked with the rabbi to secure grants to create opportunities for teens in the North Hills.

The combined approach seems to be working for North Hills teens.

Begler explained that Temple Ohav Shalom now features a headquarters for BBYO and hosts the largest number of teen participation in the region.

Lindsay Migdal, regional director of the BBYO Keystone Mountain Region, said that, in addition to the North Hills location, there are currently two BBYO chapters in the South Hills.

The biggest challenge to the suburban program, according to Migdal, is “driving time and making sure we can get teens to the locations.”

She said the organization is purposeful in its interactions, designing regional programs outside of the city and ensuring that their annual convention isn’t always held in Squirrel Hill so “the other areas know that they can host something.”

Rabbi Barbara Symons of Temple David Congregation in Monroeville explained that among families with young children, participation at the Reform synagogue’s religious school is almost 100%. Engagement looks slightly different though for teens in the eastern suburbs.

“We are NFTY members, so that’s our primary affiliation for kids. They go to J-Serve but they don’t attend J Line.” J-Serve is a one-day event for students in sixth through 12th grade.

Travel time is perhaps the largest deterrence to teen engagement in J Line at the Squirrel Hill location. “Our teens attend Temple David but they might live in Irwin or North Huntingdon or Elizabeth, so they have that extra travel time before they even get to Temple David.”

That commute and a population growth that hasn’t kept pace with the South Hills and North Hills means that the community and Federation must work harder when looking at engagement opportunities.

Despite the challenges, Symons noted proudly, “Temple David takes great pride in showing up, and when we do show up, we’re highly involved.”

She said the synagogue’s partnership with the Monroeville Interfaith Ministerium illustrated her point.

The Monroeville Interfaith Ministerium at a panel discussion last spring at the Monroeville Public Library. (Photo courtesy of Monroeville Public Library)

Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh Director of Marketing Adam Hertzman said that the organization has been aware of the increase of Jewish households in the suburbs for several years and that the study confirmed their beliefs.

“As a result, the Jewish Federation has funded several initiatives to try and increase connections to suburban Jewish communities for a long time.”

The creation of South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh bolstered that statement, according to Hertzman. He explained that the idea was to bring programming and opportunities taking place in the city to the South Hills.

The program worked so well, Hertzman explained, that Federation eventually spun South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh off to the JCC, which is focused largely on programming.

Goodman likes to say that he wakes up every day “thinking about how to make life better for Jewish individuals and families living in the South Hills.”

The organization accomplishes this through engagement opportunities including holiday programming and speakers, as well as educational opportunities with Federation and JCC agencies and partners.

“Whether it’s with Classrooms Without Borders or the JAA or JFCS or the Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh, or the various Federation agencies or different divisions within the JCC, we have made a conscious effort to make it easier for them to come to suburbia and to be welcomed.”

Goodman said that over-programming is an issue when creating engagement opportunities for suburban communities. “Everybody has conflicts, and is over-scheduled, not only with themselves but with their kids as well. You have to really be intentional when you program for the suburbs.”

Each of the suburban organizations believed that Federation provided a huge assistance, especially when it came to issues like security after the terrorist attack of Oct. 27. Most, however, would like to see more assistance to help with program opportunities, availability to Federation and JCC partner agencies and speakers.

Himmel said she thought an organization like the one in the South Hills could help foster that assistance.

“I actually think that would be immensely helpful,” she said. “I think that we probably need more of that type of outreach, especially for speakers or opportunities like an adult education program.”

Hertzman said another program funded by Federation, PJ Library, has found great success in the suburbs. It provides free Jewish books to children 6 months through 8 years of age.

“It’s clearly been a success. Many more people are engaged, there is strong growth in the number of families who are subscribing to PJ Library, and then who are resubscribing to PJ Our Way, which is the PJ Library for older kids.”

Hertzman said the success of both PJ Library and South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh illustrate the fact that it’s important to “connect people to Jewish life in ways meaningful to them.”

Rosenblum agreed that it was vital to meet people where they are. “We’re trying to make this a place where they can fit their suburban rhythm into what we offer,” he said. “Hopefully, they can treat this as their little corner of Squirrel Hill and for others, they can incorporate whatever fits for them.”

The rabbi believes that the suburbs may point a way to the future of Jewish living, no matter where one lives.

“Our approach, certainly for millennials and the younger generations, should be to explain how we’re going to add Jewish value and spiritual value to their lives. We’re not going to get them with a guilt trip. We have to realize there’s a new reality and adjust to that.”

Begler believes opportunities still exist for growth in the suburbs. He said there are approximately 800 unaffiliated families in the North Hills. Those families will need a reason to engage with the suburban institutions.

Rubin thinks that the information found in the survey may point the way to learn how to engage suburban Jews not already immersed in Jewish life.

“I think understanding demographics is a big reason for the study. In the South Hills, for instance, I was surprised at how few households have minor children, it’s only 6%. In the North Hills, we saw intermarriage rates are a little bit higher than in the South Hills and certainly than that in Squirrel Hill.

“We also have a lower percentage of parents in the North Hills, who are sending their kids to formal Jewish education, whether we’re talking about certainly day schools, but even part-time schools in the synagogues or overnight camps or youth groups, any sort of Jewish education. It points to the fact that this is a nuanced endeavor, and that you can’t just describe the suburbs with a label and say, ‘Oh, these are those type of people.’”

Goodman agreed that you can’t simply create a program for one region and think it will find success in other regions.
“I think it takes phone calls. I think it takes a lot of time. You have to work with the suburban leaders to initiate that point of contact and let them know you’re there. You have to ask the questions, ‘What can we do for you? How can we help?’”

Himmel believes that one thing all the suburban communities have in common is that they work hard to be warm and welcoming because “there just aren’t as many opportunities to build Jewish community in the suburbs.”

Temple Emanuel of South Hills Executive Director Leslie Hoffman echoed Himmel’s comments and said that the suburbs offer Jewish families “strong Jewish institutions, good schools, the ability to worship as they choose and the opportunity to make lifelong Jewish friends.” pjc

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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