Buoyed by donations totaling $1 million, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh is poised to launch its initiative to grow Jewish engagement in the South Hills within the next couple of months.
With a budget that size, the South Hills community should expect to see a meaningful expansion of Jewish programs and experiences.
Just ask Beth Finger, founder of Jewish Without Walls (JWOW), a grassroots initiative in Suffolk County, N.Y.,
that provides innovative programming, bringing together Jewish families from across the denominational spectrum, on no budget at all.
Finger, who has a master’s degree in social work, has spent her professional life in Jewish communal service. She started JWOW as a grassroots effort in 2011 to “bring diverse groups together.”
“My own family is diverse, so I’ve always been comfortable with Jews of all backgrounds,” she told the Chronicle, speaking from her home in Nesconset, N.Y. “So, I wondered, why are we always so separated from each other?”
After volunteering at a Federation event at which Jews from all backgrounds were pitching in to fill food baskets for the needy, Finger realized, “We need to do more of this,” she said.
So, she soon organized an apple-picking event at a local farm around the time of Rosh Hashana, and sent emails announcing the event to a host of people she had met during the nine years she had lived on Long Island.
Twenty families showed up, and Finger knew she was on to something.
Since then, she has been hard at work organizing myriad events each month, providing opportunities for area Jews to celebrate their heritage and to connect socially. In the next month alone, JWOW is offering an Iron Chef-style competition, a berry-picking event, a Shabbat potluck and scavenger hunt, a presentation on breast cancer awareness, a family kayak and canoe trip, a “bear hunt” for toddlers and a trip to Fire Island.
Participants pay for the cost of the event only, there are no dues, and Finger and her team of five volunteers receive no compensation for their time.
“It’s a labor of love,” she said.
Some of those who come to JWOW belong to other Jewish institutions — Finger, for example, is a member of a congregation, and sends her children to a Schechter day school — but for others, it is JWOW that has opened the door to the Jewish community.
“We’re really a cultural group,” Finger said. “Most Jewish people I know aren’t looking for services to satisfy their Jewish needs. But we have both people who belong to shuls, and also those who use this as their connection to Jewish life. We have everyone from those who go to Chabad to interfaith families. That’s our goal: to have both.”
The group has given Deborah Chaleff, who had “separated” herself from institutional Judaism, a way to celebrate her Jewish roots and to introduce that heritage to her children.
“JWOW is all about the culture,” she said. “It’s so amazing. There’s no pressure. It’s the first time in my life I’ve joined anything where I’ve felt completely accepted and heard.”
Finger and her cadre of volunteers listen to their community members, and tailor events to satisfy their needs and interests.
“I think every community needs a JWOW, or something like it,” Finger said. “We create all these artificial walls in the Jewish community. There is no reason why Conservative, Reform, Orthodox and Reconstructionist Jews can’t all get together to celebrate. JWOW really does serve that purpose.”
And because JWOW has been innovative in its programming, the “bar has been raised” for area synagogues to come up with some new ideas for programming as well, Finger said.
JWOW is not intended to compete with area congregations, Finger stressed.
“We want synagogues to succeed,” she said. “We encourage them to post their events on our Facebook page. And they do: they post job opportunities and registration for Hebrew school. JWOW is even working with the synagogues to offer free High Holiday services to the unaffiliated for one year. That’s a win-win, because the synagogues are reaching potential new families.”
Likewise, Pittsburgh’s new South Hills initiative will work with established Jewish institutions to enrich programming, while reaching out to the unaffiliated. But its efforts will expand beyond the scope of grassroots organizations like JWOW to grow Jewish engagement, according to Joshua Donner, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh planning director.
“Our strategy is much bigger and broader,” he said. “That’s where our budget comes in. We need staffing.”
The $1 million initiative will provide support for the programs of existing institutions as well as create innovative communitywide events.
“What we want to try to do in the South Hills is to attack this opportunity from all sides,” he said. “We want to do a comprehensive job of providing leadership development, both institutionally and individually. We want to see a surge of high quality programming.”
That programming will range from Pittsburgh-wide activities based in the South Hills, to programming specifically designed for South Hills residents, he said.
“We want to see groups of families learning and doing Jewish together,” he said. “The idea of this energy is that anybody that has a passion to explore their Jewish journey and explore it with others is what we would love to help grow.”
The Federation is still in the process of finding the right person to hire to head its South Hills initiative, and hopes to have the groundwork laid for a fall launch.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)