To successfully bring together Jews of different backgrounds and beliefs, you need a couple of things: a neutral location not associated with any particular synagogue, food that meets the broadest standard of kosher and plenty of stuff for all the kids to do.
So when 13 Jewish groups from communities east of the city created the East Suburbs Jewish Connection this year, they decided to kick things off with a community barbecue.
Location? The Henry Kaufmann Family Recreation Park in Monroeville, owned by the Jewish Community Center. Food? Hamburgers, hotdogs and vegetarian fare overseen by the Vaad HaRabbanim. Activities? Bounce houses to jump on, rides on a Model-T Ford, tubs of cherry and mango Rita’s Italian ice, arts and crafts stations and a giant swimming pool.
The purpose of the event — attended by more than 250 people on the hottest day on record this year — was to both bring Jews together and inform Jews about the religious and cultural resources available in Monroeville, White Oak, Greensburg and Latrobe, according to Rhonda Horvitz, community organizer for the United Jewish Federation.
The ESJC comprises seven congregations — Temple David, Temple B’nai Israel, Beth Israel Congregation of Latrobe, Parkway Jewish Center, Chabad of Monroeville, Gemilas Chesed Synagogue and Congregation Emanu-El Israel — and six area Jewish organizations — NA’AMAT, Hadassah, B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, the JCC, Shalom Pittsburgh and the Westmoreland Jewish Community Council.
Those organizations serve a Jewish community spread across several cities, where Jews of different backgrounds might not pass each other on the street as frequently as they do in Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
That’s why it’s important to create opportunities to come together, according to Staci Goldstein, of Monroeville, a UJF volunteer for the event.
“Everyone can get to know one another in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere … and then we can come together and plan future events that are just as much fun,” Goldstein said.
Even the planning stage — where a committee made up of representatives from the different groups — brought Jews together.
“We all got together. We all planned it. We all pitched in. I schlepped signs. People schlepped arts and crafts. People schlepped food in here,” Goldstein said. “We all came together and made it work, and we’re hoping to have a lot more events.”
The congregations of the eastern suburbs are diverse, ranging from several Reform congregations to a Conservative congregation with a spiritual leader, to a Chabad House, to one of the last small town Orthodox congregations left in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Like Jews everywhere, those communities have had their differences in the past. The idea for the ESJC came about after community leaders looked for ways to increase unity among their groups, according to Rabbi Mendy Schapiro, with Chabad of Monroeville.
“All the leaders of every community and every organization sat down and said, ‘We have to figure something out to bring the community together,’” Schapiro said.
The quest for Jewish unity is an old one. Cantor Rick Berlin, the spiritual leader of the Parkway Jewish Center, drew a lesson from the string of mid-summer Torah readings.
He noted that the book of Deuteronomy repeats commandments first mentioned earlier in the Torah because it was addressing a younger community not present at Mt. Sinai.
“Moses was faced with the same problem that we as a Jewish community are faced with today: How do you get the next generation to keep being Jewish?” Berlin said.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)