Need for ‘strong community’ makes South Hills Engagement Initiative a reality

Need for ‘strong community’ makes South Hills Engagement Initiative a reality

A $2 million initiative to increase a sense of community and foster outreach among Jews in the South Hills launched last week with the first meeting of the newly formed South Hills Community Council.

Composed of 20 individuals from a variety of backgrounds and affiliations, the council aims to unify the Jewish community of the South Hills, according to Rob Goodman, director of the South Hills Engagement Initiative.

The SHEI was created last year after the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh received $1 million in donations specifically earmarked to create a new community engagement initiative in the South Hills. The money came from two individual donors — one who is a South Hills resident and one who is not — with the intent to support existing Jewish institutions in a cooperative effort to increase participation in Jewish communal activities. Further fundraising efforts have boosted the coffers for the project to $2 million over five years.

The South Hills has about 3,000 Jewish households, according to the 2002 Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, the most recent study of the Jewish population here.

“I could not have been more pleased with the gathering, our dialogue and the group we put together,” said Goodman, noting that the council members range in age from those in their 20s to retirees and come from each of the five congregations in the area. Three council members are unaffiliated with any congregation, he added.

“This is truly a great representation of the community,” Goodman said. Everyone seemed to be on the “same page” in wanting to cultivate a “strong, engaged and committed community.”

Goodman has rented office space on Washington Road in Bethel Park and has plans to hire a full-time communication and administrative assistant and a part-time educator to help move the initiative forward.

Quality Jewish programming already exists in the South Hills, Goodman said, but through the new initiative he hopes to “take those events from the simmer to the boiling point.”

The council is now working on a strategic plan and mission statement to determine the best means to accomplish its goals, Goodman said.

The SHEI will soon be launching a social media presence as well as a website.

“The South Hills has a great story to tell on a daily basis,” Goodman said.

Goodman said that the council would be visiting community members to determine their needs before new programming is instigated.

“This is not about hitting a home run every time or doing a big Yom Haatzmaot program every month,” he said. “We realize people are busy.”

The council will meet bimonthly, he said, and the location of the meetings will rotate among the various Jewish institutions in the South Hills, including the five synagogues and the Jewish Community Center.

“A lot of us have had the idea of something like this for a long, long time,” said William Spatz, chair of the council. “We want to bring together the people of the South Hills and reach out to those not involved who would like to be.”

Some community members are not interested in affiliating with a congregation, he said, but still would like to be involved in Jewish activities.

“We agreed that before we come up with new events, we need to come together first,” he said, noting that the council hopes to overcome the denominational and geographical barriers that can hinder unity.

“We envision this council as getting past specific affiliations that have created territorialism,” he continued. “We want to break that down and get past it.”

“There’s a really great group on this council of dedicated and enthusiastic people who want to change the way things are now and make them better,” said Spatz.

The SHEI will be sponsoring a Global Day of Jewish Learning on Sunday, Nov. 16, with programs running at Beth El, Temple Emanuel, Chabad of the South Hills, Congregation Ahavath Achim and Beth Israel Center.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

read more: