Rabbi Ari Goldberg and his wife Rachel came to Pittsburgh 11 years ago, when Goldberg accepted a two-year position as a part-time assistant rabbi at Congregation Poale Zedeck and youth director for the congregation’s Orthodox youth group, NCSY.
But things didn’t exactly turn out as the rabbi, just 24 at the time, had planned.
The two-year stint became an 11-year commitment to enrich the lives of Jewish teenagers, and enable social and spiritual growth within a Jewish framework.
Now, after doing outreach to Jewish teens throughout the area — from Upper St. Clair to Squirrel Hill — Goldberg is headed in a new direction, as a financial planner for the firm Hefren-Tillotson in Pittsburgh.
Goldberg had been on the path to developing a career in financial planning before he came to Pittsburgh, and had lined up a job in that field in his home town of Kansas City after finishing his rabbinic training through The Jerusalem Kollel in Israel. But when the director of the Central East region of NCSY, Tzali Freedman, came to the yeshiva to recruit for the Pittsburgh position, Goldberg ended up getting the job.
The Goldbergs came to Pittsburgh with the intention of returning to Kansas City following the two-year stint.
But by the end of the Goldbergs’ first year in Pittsburgh, “if not sooner, it just started clicking,” Goldberg said. “Two years became six years, and before we knew it, we were putting down roots here. Somewhere around year five we decided to make Pittsburgh our home.”
When Rabbi Yisroel Miller left his position as Poale Zedeck’s senior rabbi eight years ago, Goldberg took over as interim rabbi as the congregation did a hiring search. He applied for position himself, and when he did not get the job, he was “heartbroken,” he said. “At the time, I was disappointed, but when God closes a door, he opens a window.
“In hindsight,” Goldberg said, “things worked out for the best. It was an opportunity for me to transition from a part-time role at NCSY to full time, where a lot of my passion and enthusiasm lies and where you can see the fruits of your labor tangibly.”
Goldberg coordinates over 200 local, regional, and summer events each year for more than 300 teens, according to Freedman, and his impact on those teens became obvious almost immediately.
“Ari and Rachel Goldberg rapidly became known as the MVPs for teens,” Freedman said. “On nights and weekends, their home
is always open to teens, serving great food and nosh and offering friendship and mentorship. Their selfless devotion to teens for more than a decade has
produced amazing results: adults who are passionate about their Judaism, are thoroughly devoted to their community and are our future leaders.”
Prior to Goldberg taking the helm of NCSY, the group was a synagogue-based organization, and participants would be recruited through their congregational affiliation. The model changed around the time Goldberg came to Pittsburgh, with NCSY becoming an independent community organization — although it is still affiliated with the Orthodox Union — without specific synagogue links. The reality had shifted, Goldberg explained, to a situation where teens who were not Orthodox were no longer found within Orthodox congregations. In the past, he noted, there were many families that were not Orthodox, but that still were members of Orthodox shuls. That is no longer commonly true.
“So, NCSY had to be a community organization and take the programming to where the kids were,” he said.
That was the genesis of the Jewish culture clubs that Goldberg introduced at various schools in the city, including at Upper St. Clair High School, the Ellis School and Pittsburgh Allderdice.
“The idea is that it is in the [secular] schools where you find teens who are not affiliated,” he said.
Goldberg’s outreach at Allderdice had a significant impact on the sons of Ellen Sikov of Squirrel Hill. The Sikovs are members of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, where not many youth activities are offered, she said. Both Zack, now a student at Carnegie Mellon University, and Tyler, a high school senior, met Goldberg at the Jewish culture club at Allderdice, and from there they became involved in NCSY, attending both local events and conventions out of town.
“NCSY in general has a lot to offer,” Sikov said, adding that her sons appreciated learning more about Orthodox traditions and making friends through the group.
“NCSY has filled a need for our Conservative family,” she said. “It’s a nice modern Orthodox mix.”
Goldberg, she said, made her sons feel comfortable and knew how to do outreach to kids who might otherwise have been reluctant to join a Jewish club at school
“We’ll miss him,” Sikov said of Goldberg. “He’s leaving big shoes to fill.”
While Goldberg said he is “very excited” about his new positon with Hefren-Tillotson, “this was a decision that weighed on me tremendously over the last couple years. To be involved with such gratifying, fulfilling and noble work is very difficult to walk away from.”
Goldberg will finish out this school year as director of Pittsburgh NCSY. The regional office has been interviewing candidates to replace him and a successor will be announced “soon,” according to Freedman.
“We anticipate a seamless transition with the Goldbergs’ continued tutelage,” Freedman said.
As for Goldberg, he does not see his career change from youth group leader to financial planner as a major shift.
“It’s not that different,” he said. “Instead of helping people organize their financial portfolios, I’ve been helping people organize their spiritual portfolios. Now, I’m just transitioning the other way. I ask people what steps are they taking to reach the goals they set.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.