Erasing the borders

Erasing the borders

At a recent panel discussion about the past, present and future of Squirrel Hill, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO Jeffrey Finkelstein made a frank and correct observation about the neighborhood.

Speaking about the future of Squirrel Hill as a viable Jewish neighborhood, Finkelstein said, “How should we change? I don’t know. But what got us here is not going to get us there. If we keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them, we’re going to go out of business.”

We agree. In fact, we’d like to expand upon Finkelstein’s comment to include the suburbs as well as the city.  

Like Finkelstein, we don’t have all the answers to the challenge of maintaining a viable Jewish Pittsburgh in the 21st century. Perhaps we never will; the challenge of improving Jewish life is more about the process than the end game.

But this much we believe: Nothing can be achieved unless the city and suburbs move forward as equal partners.

An old colleague of ours at the Chronicle once said, wistfully: “There’s nothing wrong with Jewish Pittsburgh that 20,000 new Jews won’t solve.” That may be true, but the region is not likely to see 20,000 new Jews move here, or at least 20,000 new affiliated Jews. We’ll always attract some new arrivals, but not enough to maintain the status quo. Essentially, we must go with what we have, and that means using our human resources wisely.

How do we do that? Erase as many borders as possible between city and suburbs, between congregations and between organizations. Borders are wonderful things — for mapmakers, but not for modern day Jewish communities.

The city of Louisville, Ky., realized that on a political level. In 2000, residents of the city and surrounding Jefferson County voted to merge their governments, a decision that more than doubled the population of Louisville and propelled it from the 64th largest city in America to the 23rd.

Before we’re accused of comparing apples to oranges, we understand that a Jewish community is not a political jurisdiction. Still, there’s a valuable lesson to be learned from the Louisville experience. The city and county realized they were stronger together than they were as separate entities. City and suburban Jews must keep that lesson in mind, and develop it.

In many ways we already do this. Melton courses are taught in the city and suburbs. The Jewish Community Center maintains city and suburban facilities, just to mention a couple examples. All that is good, but more must be done.

We don’t know what the future holds for Jewish Pittsburgh. Maybe Squirrel Hill will grow and the suburbs will shrink. Maybe the suburbs will grow and Squirrel Hill will shrink. Maybe both will grow, or — heaven forbid — shrink. We just don’t know.

But we do know that Jewish leaders are meeting, talking and planning for the future; we hope at some point in the process those planning sessions will include meetings between city and suburban Jews, all sharing with one another what each entity needs to maintain its viability, and how each entity can help the other.

Living Jewishly in the city and suburbs will never be quite the same; there will always be some unique challenges facing each region. Our goal should be to minimize those differences as much as possible.