After a summer studying Jewish texts at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, Amanda Russell decided that she wanted to become a rabbi.
“I just fell in love with what I was doing there,” she said. “I had never been to Israel just to study like that.”
Russell, who has served Temple Ohav Shalom (TOS) since 2010 as its music coordinator and youth director, will be leaving the Allison Park congregation at the end of July to attend the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, where she will train to become a Conservative rabbi.
The congregation will honor her at a musical ZAMRU Shabbat service Friday, June 21, at 7:30 p.m., followed by a special oneg.
Russell, who grew up in an intermarried Conservative home headed by a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, was raised with a strong sense of Jewish identity, she said, although her family was not particularly observant.
“I have always known I would end up working in the Jewish world,” Russell said. “I think that my work here in the Jewish community in Pittsburgh has made me become more observant.”
Russell came to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia in 2007 as a student at the University of Pittsburgh, and began doing musical soloist work part time at Congregation Beth Shalom. When Beth Shalom hired Ben Rosner as its full-time cantor in 2010, Russell started working as a part-time musical soloist at Ohav Shalom.
Her duties over the years expanded to include a full-time position as the 180-family congregation’s music coordinator and youth director. As youth director, she is charged with engaging preschoolers to teenagers, and training those preparing for b’nai mitzva.
“My favorite part of the job is the b’nai mitzva preparation, developing relationships with the students and the parents in the process,” Russell said. “My bat mitzva drew me into the Jewish world, and the cantor I worked with had a big influence on me. I’ve always sort of wanted to be that for my students and my families.”
Russell has a particular talent for connecting with young and old alike, said Ken Eisner, president of the congregation.
“She developed the strongest youth program we ever had,” he said. “She always knew how to motivate the kids. She’s really been a superstar. I can definitely say there was no one in the congregation that didn’t love having her here.”
Russell can also be credited with enhancing the congregation’s musical Shabbat services, including the introduction of a band.
“Over the years, she has made tremendous contributions to our Ohav Shalom community,” said Rabbi Art Donsky, spiritual leader of the congregation. “She’s given us beautiful music and incredible work with our youth and teens.”
Russell will be on hand through the end of July, and will be available to help TOS transition following the retirement of Rabbi Donsky, who will be leaving at the end of June, Eisner said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)