For the first time, members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community were able to enjoy kosher hot dogs at PNC Park, a stadium many natives call one of the best in the country but that doesn’t normally offer any kosher food options.
The hot dogs were part of a pregame barbecue hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh for the seventh annual Jewish Heritage Night on Aug. 16, just one of the tactics organizers added this year to increase participation and reach a wider demographic. They also created a new lottery system to choose a member of the community to throw out the first pitch, rather than selecting a high-profile Jewish leader.
The efforts to bring more people to the ballpark seemed to be successful, according to Joshua Avart, account manager for the Pirates: With more than 600 people attending the game because of Jewish Heritage Night and 450 people signed up for the barbecue, they counted the highest number of participants since the event first began.
Adam Hertzman, director of marketing for the Federation, said he hoped increasing visibility of Jewish Heritage Night would be a way of showing more people what the Jewish community has to offer.
“I hope that people who haven’t met [or] connected with the Jewish community before realize that there are so many ways to connect with the Jewish community in Pittsburgh that fit their individual needs and the way they identify as Jewish,” Hertzman said. “I hope this is a small part of showing them that there are a lot of possibilities.”
Since PNC Park does not offer kosher food, Avart said he heard feedback from members of the Orthodox community that the best way to get them to the park was to offer food they could enjoy. For a $5 fee, attendees could select from a menu of kosher hot dogs, maple barbecue beans and cajun slaw catered by Smokey Nat’s BBQ. Tickets sold out before game day.
Although Rebecca Spiegel, president of Young Peoples Synagogue, has attended every Jewish Heritage Night, she said the kosher hot dogs were a welcome addition, especially since she normally travels several hours to get them.
“We go to Baltimore to see the Orioles just to get kosher hot dogs even though we’re not Orioles fans,” she said. “When I heard about [the barbecue] I was very excited. … I think it’s wonderful.”
(Progressive Field, which hosts the Cleveland Indians, also serves kosher hot dogs.)
As most members of the Jewish community chomped on hot dogs and enjoyed the scenic view of the river and the skyline from PNC Park’s picnic area, Richard Wilson stood on the field near home plate, “60 percent excited and 40 percent nervous” to throw out the first pitch in the game against the Chicago Cubs. (The Pirates ended up losing, 1-0.)
For Wilson, a member of Beth Samuel Jewish Center, which used a tour bus to ship congregants from Ambridge to the ballpark, “any day at the park is a great day.”
Before throwing his pitch, he changed his strategy at the last minute and threw the ball shorter than expected, but “at least it got there,” he said after. “I would love to do it again but I realize these kinds of things only come around once in a lifetime so I’ll just savor this one.”
In addition to the new perks, each year the Pirates give a hat or T-shirt designed in some way to represent Jewish culture, whether that is spelling out “Pittsburgh” in Hebrew or adding a Jewish star to the side of the hat as they did this year.
For Eric and Zach Miller, father and son, Jewish Heritage Night and its paraphernalia have become a source of bonding on multiple occasions. After attending Jewish Heritage Night a few years ago, Zach had several T-shirts that he later used when he attended the Maccabi games to play baseball. At the end of the games, players often exchange shirts to commemorate the event. Zach traded his in for one from Brooklyn, N.Y., where his father grew up.
“It’s kind of cool that everything comes full circle, and this is connected with it,” Zach said.
The pair attended Thursday’s Jewish Heritage Night as a last hoorah before Zach left for college.
Benjamin Vincent and Philip Terman, both from Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler, said they attended simply because they love the “whole schmear” of Jewish Heritage Night, from bringing community members together to connecting over their love of baseball.
“Jews are natural baseball fans, I think,” Terman said.
“It’s part of our culture,” added Vincent.
Rabbi Jamie Gibson, who was on the field before the game to join Temple Sinai in singing the national anthem, said he went to his first baseball game when he was 4, and his love for the ballpark hasn’t subsided since. More than that, he said, he loves that everybody comes together.
“It’s community, community, community. That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “Take us out to the ballgame.” PJC