Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation and the Jewish Association on Aging are exploring the possibility of creating senior housing for the community, as well as a new synagogue space, on the congregation’s property at the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues.
The two entities entered into a six-month exclusive agreement, or letter of intent, during which time TOL*OLS and the JAA “will seriously examine the feasibility of moving forward together,” TOL*OLS president Michael Eisenberg wrote in a letter to congregants dated Aug. 26.
“I think this is big news,” Eisenberg said in an interview, following last week’s congregational meeting at which the agreement was announced. “I think we’ve got some energy going in the synagogue; people are interested.”
In the Aug. 26 letter, Eisenberg explained that the agreement with the JAA came as a result of the organizations’ participation in a multiyear study with other Jewish agencies under the direction of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh; the goal was to “better utilize Jewish-based facilities.”
“Not surprisingly,” Eisenberg wrote, “the study confirmed and quantified the widespread impression that many Jewish institutions in Squirrel Hill are underutilized and overbuilt for today.”
One outcome of the study, Eisenberg said, was the finding that the JAA was in need of additional space to create independent senior living facilities and that TOL*OLS is, in Eisenberg’s words, “wasting a lot of space at Shady and Wilkins.”
“We only have about a third of the number of congregants that we had at our peak,” he explained. “We probably have about 20 percent of our school from when it was at its peak. We’ve got a really big sanctuary. If we were building a building for our current needs, we wouldn’t build what we have now.”
As a result of the community study, Mitchell Pakler, president of the JAA’s board of trustees, reached out to the synagogue’s leadership to see if there was interest in exploring a potential transfiguration of the congregation’s property to create senior living units as well as more appropriately sized spaces for use by the congregation.
“This is not just a Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha/Jewish Association on Aging project,” Pakler emphasized. “It’s a community project. There is a need in our community for affordable housing for seniors.”
The JAA is not currently considering any other potential sites for the project, Pakler noted, and during the next six months, the JAA will be funding “feasibility studies,” including demographic studies to determine the needs of the community.
The JAA reached out to TOL*OLS at a time when its leadership was “trying to figure out what our future was,” Eisenberg said. “We were trying to figure out how to make a financially feasible synagogue model, because we just weren’t making it and we weren’t going to make it.”
The congregation’s problems included declining dues income, as well as “changes in the Conservative movement,” said Eisenberg. With its current financial state of affairs, “the status quo just wasn’t going to work,” so the congregational leadership came up with a plan: “a metropolitan model.”
“We approached other synagogues and thought maybe we could be under one roof,” Eisenberg continued, adding that although the different congregations would remain distinct, they could share resources, such as a single executive director.
Eisenberg had meetings with the presidents of several congregations in the area. Of those, Congregation Beth Shalom and New Light Congregation expressed interest in pursuing the possibilities.
David Horvitz, president of Beth Shalom, confirmed that his congregation was interested in continuing talks with TOL*OLS.
“There is no meat on the bones right now, but we are interested in anything that would be for the good of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh,” Horvitz said.
New Light is also on board with exploring a potential collaboration, said Barbara Caplan, co-president of New Light.
“All of us are losing members here and there,” she said. “The possibility of a collaboration exists.”
There is “tremendous support” among congregants at TOL*OLS for the potential JAA project, Eisenberg noted, adding that the letter of intent with the JAA does not prohibit his congregation from pursuing talks with Beth Shalom and New Light as well.
“I need to figure out what we’re going to do as a shul,” he said. “The synagogue model is not a winner for the future. We need some sort of transformational change.
“The JAA has a six-month window of time to figure out what they’re doing,” he continued. “We have a six-month period of time to figure out what we’re doing. This is a real catalyst for action. This has been a major energizer of interest and also offers a huge glimmer of hope.”
Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Federation, has been following the discussion.
“Wherever they end up, it’s really positive that our Jewish communal institutions are thinking out of the box about how to serve our community,” Finkelstein said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.