Departure of AJL’s ‘wonderful resource, wonderful thinker’ leaves huge shoes to fill
After five years of serving as the Agency for Jewish Learning’s community scholar, as well as its director of systemic initiatives, Rabbi Dr. Scott Aaron will be leaving Pittsburgh to take a new position to bolster Jewish education in Chicago.
Aaron will be completing his service at the AJL on Aug. 15 and will head to the Windy City to become the executive director at the Community Foundation for Jewish Education at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. His Chicago post begins Sept. 2.
Aaron will be moving to Chicago with his oldest son, while his wife, Rabbi Donni Aaron, and his two younger children — who are in fifth and eighth grade — will remain in Pittsburgh for one year so that the children can finish up educational cycles at Community Day School. The family will commute to be together on weekends.
His five years here helped him grow professionally, Aaron said, and he appreciates the connections he made with committed community members.
“I hope I was able to give as much as I got while in Pittsburgh,” Aaron said.
And he gave a lot, according to Ed Frim, executive director of the AJL.
“He’s been a wonderful resource for the community and a wonderful thinker for the community,” Frim said.
Among Aaron’s contributions in Pittsburgh were the launch of the Spertus Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Service program; monthly meetings for synagogue presidents from across the community; the Kehillot Kayamot: the Sustainable Synagogues program; and the lecture series, “Conversations for a Jewish Future.”
“He’s leaving us some gifts,” Frim said of Aaron. “He instigated a lot of leadership training for both professional and lay leaders. He was central to the Conversations for a Jewish Future. He also brought the Spertus master’s program here, and we’re benefiting from eight or nine professionals who benefited from these kinds of things.”
During his time in Pittsburgh, Aaron was sought after as a consultant and teacher by many organizations throughout the country, including the Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Foundation for Jewish Camp, the Avi Chai Foundation, Taglit-Birthright Israel and the World Zionist Organization, according to Frim.
The position of community scholar evolved under the tenure of Aaron, Frim said. While previous community scholars Dr. Ron Brauner and Rabbi Dr. Danny Schiff focused on the role of serving as teacher and scholar for the larger community, Aaron took on “more of an overseer approach, than being out there giving lectures,” Frim said.
Although Aaron was initially hired primarily to teach Judaics to adults after Schiff left the AJL to move to Israel, “there had to be the recognition that the job I was hired to do doesn’t exist anymore,” Aaron said.
Competition from such programs as the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute for adult Jewish students caused a drop in registration for AJL classes, according to Aaron.
“The need for that kind of full-time work had begun to shift,” he said, and moved to a demand for “skill building and competency building among lay leaders and professional leaders.”
Aaron’s five years in Pittsburgh afforded him the opportunity to work with “some amazing people who care about their community’s growth and future,” he said. “I worked with some amazing partners in local congregations and some amazing individuals. And there was a core group of people I studied Jewish philosophy with for three years who were a pure pleasure to study with.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to help this community grow,” he continued, “and I am honored to have taught some adult education students who were looking for a high level of Jewish thought.”
The AJL will be maintaining its current programming this coming year, according to Frim, but will also be reevaluating its role in the community.
“We need to step back and plan what we need as an agency,” Frim said.
“This is an opportunity to look at our structure and figure out what will be best going forward.”
The AJL will be re-examining its priorities, Frim said, then making staffing decisions in line with those priorities; it is unclear, at this point, whether the AJL will be hiring a community scholar to replace Aaron.
In the short term, Frim, said, the agency is working on staffing the programs slated to run this fall that were under the aegis of Aaron.
“There will probably be some part-time hiring in the short term,” he said. “There will probably be some things picked up by me and other staff in the short term. We will be evaluating our needs in the next few weeks.”
Some Continuing Legal Education programs will continue to be provided by the agency, he said.
“Anytime there’s a transition, it takes time to get things settled,” Frim said. “But life will go on as much as we will miss Scott.”
Aaron’s work in Chicago will focus on collaboration with the area’s scores of supplemental Jewish schools and day schools, “to service what’s there and improve it,” Aaron said.
Aaron received his doctorate in the philosophy of education from Loyola University Chicago, his rabbinic ordination and a master of arts in Hebrew letters from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, his Juris Doctor from the University of Toledo College of Law and a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Cincinnati.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.