It’s kind of hard to remember now, with temperatures soaring into the 90s and humidity so fierce that hair seems to frizz at the mere mention of it, but less than four months ago the thermometer in Pittsburgh registered a brisk 6 degrees and the roads were treacherous, covered with snow and ice.
It was March 5, or the 14th day of Adar, the festival of Purim, when about 125 people defied blizzard conditions to attend a Meghilla reading and celebration at the Galleria of Mt. Lebanon hosted by Chabad of the South Hills.
The event — which drew about two dozen unaffiliated Jews, its target crowd — was made possible by a grant from South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh, a $2 million initiative of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh that next month will mark the one-year anniversary of its launch.
“The grant they gave us was crucial in putting on the event,” said Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum, co-director of Chabad of the South Hills.
Chabad of the South Hills was one of the initiative’s first grant recipients, according to Rob Goodman, director of SHJP, and he anticipates many more applications for funding in the approaching months. For the coming year, $30,000 has been designated for new and enhanced programming for South Hills Jewish organizations; $20,000 has been set aside for agencies outside of the South Hills for programming that will benefit South Hills Jews; and $5,000 has been designated to fund “micro-grants” — $500 grants that will be awarded to individuals to run smaller Jewish programs such as book clubs, speakers or Shabbat dinners.
Getting the grant program up and running is just one of several accomplishments of SHJP in its inaugural year, Goodman said.
“We hit a lot of milestones and created lots of things to build on, considering we were a startup,” he said.
The mission of SHJP, formerly known as the South Hills Engagement Initiative, is to connect Jewish individuals and families living in the South Hills with each other and with area agencies, strengthening the community through collaboration, and to enhance awareness of existing programs, according to the group’s new website, southhillsjewishpittsburgh.org.
Reaching out to unaffiliated Jews living in the South Hills is another important objective of the group, according to Goodman.
“What we’re finding is ‘unaffiliated’ does not necessarily mean ‘unengaged,’” he said.
The South Hills initiative was developed last year after the Federation received $1 million in donations specifically earmarked to create a new community engagement strategy in the South Hills. The money came from two individual donors — one who is a South Hills resident and one who is not — with the intent to support existing Jewish institutions in a cooperative effort to increase participation in Jewish communal activities. Further fundraising efforts have boosted the coffers for the project to $2 million over five years.
After Goodman was hired to head up the project, he worked for several months making one-on-one contacts with leaders from his six South Hills partners — Beth El, Temple Emanuel, Chabad of the South Hills, Beth Israel Center, The Carnegie Shul, and the South Hills JCC — and then formed a community council comprised of representatives from each institution as well as several unaffiliated Jews in the community.
“We became a team,” Goodman stated. “Everyone checked their institutional objectives at the door to work together.”
The council has formed a nine-person sub-committee to review grant applications on a rolling basis and to work with institutions and individuals to “come up with some really good ideas,” said Goodman. “If it’s viable, it gets funded.”
In addition to the grant to Chabad of the South Hills for its Purim celebration, SHJP also awarded a grant to Beth El, Temple Emanuel and the JCC to host a joint Purim carnival open to the community. More than 700 people attended.
SHJP has been working to promote varied events hosted by its partners — including religious services, and social and educational programming — and has an active presence on five social media vehicles. It also generates a monthly electronic newsletter that it emails to a large database of South Hills Jewish residents, Goodman noted.
SHJP partnered to promote more than 15 events in the South Hills last year, engaging a total of more than 2,500 people, according to Goodman.
“We did better than we expected to in a short time,” said William Spatz, chair of the council. “The community is really coming together.”
There are about 3,000 Jewish households in the South Hills, according to the 2002 Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, the most recent study of the Jewish population here.
Although the central focus of SHJP is to facilitate and enhance programming run by the existing institutions, it took the lead on a communitywide Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration and may host another program in the coming year, said Goodman.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.