The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh has received $1 million in donations specifically earmarked to create a new community engagement initiative in the South Hills.
The money comes from two individual donors — one who is a South Hills resident and one who is not — and will be used to support existing Jewish institutions in a cooperative effort to increase participation in Jewish communal activities. The money will also be used to create new and innovative programming, according to Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Federation.
“This is really an unprecedented institutional partnership between all of the major institutions in the South Hills: Beth El, Temple Emanuel, the JCC and Chabad,” Finkelstein said.
The initiative was conceived after the donor from the South Hills offered the Federation $500,000 specifically to “strengthen the South Hills community,” according to Finkelstein.
The five-year plan, which Finkelstein dubbed the “Cadillac Plan,” calls for hiring a full-time staff person within the next few months, and for raising a second million dollars to help fund programming.
“The plan is about getting people involved with each other, and building relationships,” Finkelstein said, and was generated based on information garnered from the most recent Pittsburgh Jewish community study.
That study, completed in 2002, showed that there were 3,000 Jewish households in the South Hills, and that those households comprised 15 percent of the Jewish population in the greater Pittsburgh area. The study also showed that South Hills Jewish households are nearly twice as likely as other area Jewish households to have children.
Most notably, the study revealed that 80 percent of Jews in the South Hills said they did not see Squirrel Hill as the center for Jewish life.
“That is not the same as in other suburban areas,” Finkelstein said. “That’s because the South Hills has strong synagogues and a strong JCC. People in the South Hills feel that they have a strong Jewish community.”
The focus of the new initiative will be to reach out to South Hills Jews within their own community, and to provide engagement opportunities “with no strings attached,” Finkelstein said.
“It’s about engaging people who are already engaged, but there are lots of Jews who are not engaged,” he continued. “We want to connect them to the Jewish community and bring out their sense of Jewish identity.”
While the specific details of the initiative are still in the works, the plan calls for implementing strategies that have proved successful in other Jewish settings, such as Jewish camps and Taglit-Birthright Israel.
“We went through the studies that have been done regarding strengthening Jewish identity, nationally and internationally,” Finkelstein said. “We know what works.”
What works are experiences that are intensive, authentic and relevant, in immersive settings, owned and led by their participants, and that have strong institutions at their base, according to a power point presentation that the Federation submitted to lay and professional leaders from Temple Emanuel of South Hills, Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, Chabad of the South Hills and the South Hills Jewish Community Center.
“The plan was presented in large brushstrokes,” said Rabbi Mark Mahler, spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel. “We are waiting to see the particulars. The Federation wanted to know whether there was a general sense of commitment. It sounded good.”
Because the initiative will be based on cooperation between the existing institutions, the Federation needed to know whether they were willing to collaborate on this project.
All four institutions agreed to be on board.
“I think that what’s remarkable about Pittsburgh is the collaboration that goes on here,” Finkelstein said, pointing to efforts such as Rodef Shalom and Beth Shalom’s joint religious school, and AgeWell Pittsburgh, as examples of that spirit of collaboration. “I think we have the culture here. Do I think we have some issues and blockers here? Yes, but I think we can get through them.”
Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, agreed.
“I think there is cooperation in the South Hills,” Schreiber said. “I think it could be better, but I think the Federation leading this initiative will enhance it. There are a lot of ways the South Hills community can do that better.”
If everyone is open to collaboration, the plan could be successful, said Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, spiritual leader of Beth El Congregation.
“I think the organizations work well together, but there is room for improvement,” Greenbaum said. “There is room for collaboration, especially between the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox congregations in the South Hills. It’s going to be a lot of work, and the only way it will work is if everyone is involved. The idea of collaboration works only if the community has buy-in. There are some real lofty goals here. The first step is finding a person who can bring us all together.”
While the details of the Federation’s plan are not yet “ironed out,” the JCC’s Schreiber said, “anything that contributes to the continuing Jewish life in the South Hills we want to be a party to.”
Chabad of the South Hills is also willing to be partner to the initiative, according to Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum, its director.
“I’m definitely excited that they have identified the South Hills as a vibrant community that is self-sufficient but could use some support,” said Rosenblum. “I see vibrancy in the Jewish community as a benefit to everybody.”
The target demographic for the program is not the unengaged, but the “under-engaged,” Finkelstein said.
“The truth is, it’s hard to get those who are not and don’t want to be engaged,” he said. “The under-engaged are our sweet spot. We hope they will see the beauty of being involved and some will find an institution that they do want to become a member of.”
If successful, the initiative could serve as a model for similar programs in other communities, Finkelstein said.
“My dream is that three years from now, someone will call and say why aren’t you doing this in — name the area — Fox Chapel or the North Hills. Or a donor calls to say we want to replicate that here. That will tell me we have a model that works.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)