Of the 49,200 Jews that live in Greater Pittsburgh, 9 percent, or about 4,500, live in the North Hills, according to the recently released Jewish Community Study conducted by Brandeis University researchers and commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
While the percentage of North Hills Jews has remained constant since the last survey was completed in 2002, the actual number of residents there increased 17 percent.
“I’m getting calls every week from young families who are new to the North Hills,” said Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt, spiritual leader of Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park.
Weisblatt, who came to the Reform congregation last year, is working to find new and better ways to serve this burgeoning Jewish community. One of those ways, he said, is to create a new vision of “what Jewish life is in the North Hills, and what is Jewish life in general.”
Part of that vision, he said, is built on realistic expectations when it comes to Shabbat service attendance.
“People don’t come to every Shabbat service,” Weisblatt acknowledged. “So we have to figure out what makes them come so we can make those moments of meaning as impactful as possible.
“What I find people are looking for is a service that has meaning and is not being held just for the sake of existing,” he added. “If you start with what people want and need, you can be successful.”
Helping to create such services at TOS is Sara Stock Mayo, who recently joined the congregation as its director of music and ruach, a title she emphatically prefers to “cantorial soloist.” Mayo helps lead two Shabbat services at TOS each month, and her vision is one of robust congregational participation.
“People don’t want to be sung at,” Mayo said. Instead, she favors relatable and familiar tunes, while including an introduction to some new things as well. She sees herself as a “vessel” to help connect the congregation with its spirituality.
“It’s not a cantorial show,” she stressed. “People need to feel invested.”
Friday nights at TOS are now on a four-week cycle, Weisblatt explained. The first Friday of each month emphasizes young families and includes a story and treats for children. The second Friday of each month “pays homage to longtime members” with an emphasis on more traditional Reform tunes. The third Friday is a tot service which includes education for parents, and also brings in professional musicians who play along with some members who are musically inclined.
The fourth Friday of each month is called TOT Shabbat, Weisblatt said, with TOT an acronym for “tefillah of tomorrow.” That service focuses on learners, and includes “visual tefillah,” with liturgy appearing in English, Hebrew and transliteration on a large screen so that “everyone is on the same page.” Poetry, readings and guest speakers, including those from other faith communities, add to the inspiration of the service, Weisblatt said.
While the Shabbat services are tailored to particular groups, Weisblatt emphasized that they are nonetheless “multigenerational,” with members of various ages attending and participating at each one.
Although the rotating model is new, it is already making an impact, said the rabbi. Friday night attendance at TOS — which has about 140 member-households — has swelled from “less than a minyan” to between 30 and 50 congregants.
Mayo, who began her tenure at TOS in July, said she was “pleasantly surprised at how many people were there. There is a palpable excitement about something that is building there.”
Among those enthused about the congregation’s new direction is longtime member Deb Taylor.
“I couldn’t be more excited about this new direction,” said Taylor, a regular Shabbat service attendee. “Rabbi Weisblatt has brought a renewed sense of warmth and connection, energy, inclusivity and commitment along with a vision of creative lifelong Jewish engagement and education.
“Sara Stock Mayo, through her beautiful voice, her powerful delivery of prayer, song, stories and messages, inspires us to create a Shabbat experience with intention, meaning and plenty of ruach,” Taylor added.
Mayo will also be helping to lead holiday and b’nai mitzvah services at TOS.
“I think the future is so bright, and I’m looking forward to the coming year,” said Taylor. “I think this will be a treasure with the two of them [Weisblatt and Mayo].”
Mayo, who grew up and still lives in Squirrel Hill and considers herself a “strong city person,” was impacted by the results of the Community Study, which revealed not only that 9 percent of Pittsburgh’s Jews live in the North Hills, but 20 percent reside in the South Hills and 14 percent in other outlying areas.
“I discovered there are Jews out in the suburbs, and there are bridges and tunnels to get to those Jews,” said Mayo, who has also led services at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills and Temple David in Monroeville. “The community is growing in the North Hills, and we are seeing a vibrant community and room for growth and potential. For those of us in Squirrel hill, we forget there are these satellite communities. And it’s interesting to note this demographic shift.” PJC