At age 22, Derek Kwait is the youngest member of Young Peoples Synagogue — by 40 or 50 years.
But despite the age difference between Kwait and the other members of YPS, he says he has found a sense of family within the 100-member congregation.
The feeling is mutual.
“Boy, does he stand out,” said Frank Toker, president of YPS, of its youngest member. “But we love him.”
When the tiny congregation, which is housed in an Edwardian mansion on the corner of Forbes and Denniston in Squirrel Hill, learned that Kwait, a re- cent creative writing graduate from the University of Pittsburgh and a former intern at The Chronicle, wanted to study in Israel for a year, it got busy to help him cover expenses.
While YPS usually offers a modest scholarship—about $300 — for children and grandchildren of members to study in Israel, Toker knew that in order to really make Derek’s year in Israel happen, much more would have to be done.
“I told Derek, ‘We are going to go to bat for you,’” said Toker.
Around the time that Kwait was looking for funding help, Toker learned that long-time YPS member David Fax, who had been living in Boston for some years, had recently died. Toker decided to raise the money for Derek in memory of Fax, establishing the David Fax Me- morial Scholarship Fund.
Kwait later learned that, coincidentally, he was distantly related to Fax.
Members of YPS came through for Kwait, collectively donating about $7000 to cover his living expenses while he studies at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.
Kwait had wanted to study at Pardes since he first heard about the multi-denominational, co-educational Yeshiva, which integrates a weekly social action component into its program. While he received a scholarship from The Zionist Organization of America, and a MASA grant from the Israeli government to learn there, it was not enough to cover everything.
“My shul really helped me,” Kwait said. “It’s amazing.”
Members of YPS were eager to help Kwait.
“We’re very impressed with his interest in furthering developing his own Jewish identity and life plan,” said Dr. Marshall Hershberg, a member of YPS.
“I see Derek as a very important, contributing member to our synagogue.”
Kwait, a South Hills native, began attending Shabbat and holiday services at YPS about three years ago, because his grandfather was a long-term member there. While he often attends services at Hillel JUC, or Chabad on Campus, on Friday nights during the school year, he can usually be found at YPS on Saturday mornings.
As YPS is a member-lead congregation, Kwait has done his share of participation by delivering sermons, and reading Torah.
“Derek is a promising guy,” Toker said, “and an interesting guy. He has already given most interesting sermons.”
“I like the democratic spirit there,” Kwait said of the YPS member-lead format. “And everyone is super friendly and welcoming, and committed to learning. It’s like a family. I really found a home there.”
After completing his year at Pardes, Kwait plans to return to the United States and attend law school.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)