Ten Jewish Pittsburgh professionals received master’s of arts degrees in Jewish professional studies (MAJPS) from the Chicago-based Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership at a commencement ceremony held on Monday night at Rodef Shalom.
It marked the first time a Spertus commencement ceremony has been held in Pittsburgh.
All the graduates, honorees and speakers (representing Spertus and co-sponsoring agencies, the Agency for Jewish Learning and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh) were clad in caps and gowns. The graduates entered the auditorium to “Pomp and Circumstance,” played on piano by Hannah Breslau, and the ceremony began following the singing of both “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Hatikva.”
Recipients were Carly Adelmann, Adam Joseph Baron, Jacqueline Ellean Braslawsce, Joshua Donner, Deborah Fidel, David Samuel Katz, Johanna Kitman, Susan Rosenberg Linzer, Alexander David Speck and Aaron Weil.
The graduates are well known in and around Jewish Pittsburgh, holding director-level positions in such organizations as synagogues, Emma Kaufmann Camp, Hillel JUC, the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Eight of the 10 plan to remain in Pittsburgh, joining only three other leaders here who have such formal training.
Hal M. Lewis, president and CEO of Spertus Institute, acknowledged the graduates’ hard work in the rigorous two-year program.
“To pursue a master’s as an adult is an enormous risk and Herculean task,” he said, particularly as the students have jobs, families and other commitments.
Honorary doctoral degrees were conferred upon John S. Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, and David S. Shapira, executive chairman of Giant Eagle, Inc., and for years a leading philanthropist in the Jewish and Greater Pittsburgh communities. These recipients joined such former, notable honorees as Cynthia Ozick, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel.
In his acceptance, Shapira, who was deemed “an outstanding servant to the Jewish community,” said that because of intermarriage, Jews are facing an existential crisis. He said that three ways to combat this is through Jewish education, Jewish camp and travel to Israel.
Ruskay, a 1968 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, spoke in his keynote address of the dichotomy between retaining identity as Jews while participating in society, a society that is more open to Jews than ever before. Strengthening Jewish education at every level is imperative to meet the goal of “… living in an open society while continuing to embrace our birthright traditions.
“As I see it, the overarching challenge that faces us today,” Ruskay said, “whether working in a JCC, a synagogue, a federation or a Hillel, is whether we can provide leadership capable of building Jewish life and Jewish communities that are sufficiently compelling that Jews will choose to self-identify, not because they have to — they do not; not because of guilt — they have little; but because of the meaning, purpose and community that Jewish life provides.”
Rabbi Scott Aaron, AJL community scholar, was instrumental in bringing the Spertus curriculum to Pittsburgh. Aaron came to Pittsburgh from Chicago and believed that most thriving Jewish communities had leaders with advanced degrees.
And that poses a challenge to Pittsburgh, Aaron said. “We are not a destination city for Jewish professionals.”
As the Spertus curriculum was designed for people who already are working in the community, Aaron considered the time ripe for introducing it to Pittsburgh.
“We can change the structure here and raise the bar of our community’s leadership and ability by increasing our leadership’s skill sets,” he said.
He added, “We have a cadre of people who have studied together, who are in the same mindset of Jewish life, and they will be able to work together in the way that they haven’t before because they will be on the same page professionally and intellectually.”
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)