On a trip to Israel to visit her daughter in the army, Pittsburgher Elaine Mormer got acquainted with her daughter’s friend, Danielle Morse. When Morse later decided to attend Carnegie Mellon University after her tour of duty, Mormer offered Morse a place to come for Shabbat and holidays. Morse gladly accepted, and last year, after spending Yom Kippur break fast together, the Mormers sent Morse home with bags of food.
“She told me her dorm-mates loved the food, and said they wished they had a family in Pittsburgh,” Mormer recalled. “When she told me this, we both just kind of looked at each other and thought we could start something.”
That relationship between an out-of-town student and a local family forms the basis of Family Ties, a new program offered this year by the Hillel Jewish University Center in Oakland.
The idea seemed to be floating in the air. After their good experience on Yom Kippur, the Mormers called Rabbi Ezra Ende of Temple Sinai, where they are members. Ende called Hillel JUC, which had been tossing around ideas for connecting students with the Jewish community in Pittsburgh.
Family Ties was born.
Without any model to be found — Family Ties believes it is the first program of its kind anywhere — the organizers didn’t know how to go about finding matches. So on Sunday, Sept. 13, after a summer spent searching out interested students and families, and a marathon four-and-a-half hour matchmaking session the weekend before, the great experiment officially began with a kickoff party at Hillel.
“We have a huge, involved community and a huge [Jewish] student population that isn’t familiar with it,” said Marc Schutzbank, Hillel’s public relations coordinator and a fifth-year student at the University of Pittsburgh. “This is really a way of putting the community in touch with itself. Jews like to be with each other. My family took a student in, and this helps me to give back.”
All 60 students who signed up for Family Ties were matched with one of the more than 60 families who wanted students. “No student was turned away,” said Lynn Snyderman, vice president of community relations for Hillel JUC.
Although each family has its own reasons for signing up, giving back became a common theme.
“We wanted to provide another home, to make someone feel more comfortable, to make sure they don’t lose weight,” said Ron and Elaine Beck, a host family from Squirrel Hill. “We are both medical people, so we can help if something happens. Plus, we have kids in college and we know we would appreciate it if someone did this for our kids.”
The student they hosted, Mike Backman, a Pitt student from the Cincinnati area, signed up because it sounded like fun.
“They invited me over for the first night of Rosh Hashana dinner, and I’m really looking forward to it,” Backman said. “I hope to maybe see them once or twice a month.”
Another student, Ashley Teitleman of Philadelphia, expressed the same wish.
“I don’t have family from here and this is so much better than flying home,” she said. “I’m staying with my ‘family’ this Holiday.”
Since many of the students in the program are from out of town, the organizers considered it crucial to match them with families before the High Holidays.
“We needed to make sure students have a place to go,” Snyderman said.
But the reach of the program need not be limited to Jewish events.
“The students are Jewish and the families are all Jewish, so they will naturally want to do Jewish things,” Snyderman said. “But if they want to get together to watch a football game or something else, that’s what we’re looking for, too. We will also be checking to make sure the students have a place to go for Thanksgiving.
“Hillel and Temple Sinai will be only the backdrop of the program,” she added. “Our goal is only to start the relationship, which ideally will be a lifelong one between the students and families. If any of the matches don’t work, however, they can be canceled.”
Brad Chotiner, assistant director of Hillel JUC and the director of Family Ties, said the organization’s role in the project is the least important part.
“The community did this on its own,” he said. “This is a very special community.”
(Derek Kwait can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)