It’s hard enough for a congregation to transition after its rabbi leaves.
Add to that the departure of a youth advisor/music director and a mandate to hire a new full-time religious school director, and it’s pretty much a perfect storm.
But after a couple years of navigating some rough waters, Temple Ohav Shalom of Allison Park is primed to start fresh.
Following a “big period of transition,” the 176-family Reform congregation is ready to reboot with recently hired professional staff that hopes to infuse energy into its already committed membership, according to Robert Gibbs, president of Temple Ohav Shalom’s board of directors.
“There has been a lot of turmoil within the temple during the last two or two-and-a-half-year period,” said Gibbs, citing the departure of the congregation’s longtime spiritual leader Rabbi Art Donsky, who also was running the religious school, two subsequent part-time interim school directors and Amanda Russell, the congregation’s youth advisor and music director.
But through all the personnel changes, he said, the congregation was steadfast in its membership.
“There was no mass exodus from the temple,” Gibbs said. “The vast majority stayed. But the school was floundering, even when Rabbi Donsky was running it.”
Temple Ohav Shalom’s religious school is large for a congregation of its size, with 90 students enrolled last year.
“The school was struggling,” Gibbs said. “And the parents let us know it was struggling. We wanted to invest in a full-time school director.”
Thanks to a capable transition team, Gibbs said, including then President Ken Eisner and Moira Singer, Ohav Shalom was able to weather the storm.
“We had an amazing group of devoted and committed members who have worked very hard navigating this,” Gibbs said.
As a result, the congregation will be starting the new year with three new members on its professional staff: Rabbi Bryna Milkow, educational director Daniel Eisner and youth advisor/music director Andrea Schwalberg.
“It’s a great community here,” said Milkow, who came on board last month. “Right now, my vision is to get to know everybody and find out what people need and are interested in. There’s such tremendous potential here.”
Milkow came to Pittsburgh from Derry, N.H., where she served as spiritual leader of Etz Hayim, an 80-family Reform congregation.
New religious school director Eisner came to Pittsburgh from Napa, Calif., where he served as educational director of Congregation Beth Shalom.
He has been working in Jewish education since he became a bar mitzvah, he said.
“This congregation is so warm and welcoming,” Eisner said, adding that his view of Jewish education begins with community.
“That’s the big thing I look for, even before content,” he said. “If your students and congregants feel part of the community, they will want to be there and want to be engaged and to pay attention to the content. For me, Jewish education all circles back to developing community.”
The third member of the new Ohav Shalom team is Schwalberg, who most recently served as one of the cantorial soloists for Rodef Shalom and led the music for its family and Not-So-Tot Shabbat services.
“Andrea has a lot of musical training, particularly in performances, and a wonderful voice,” Gibbs said.
She hopes to foster more involvement in the congregation’s NFTY group, she said, and to get “full participation” from the congregation when it comes to singing.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.