Our Top 10 local stories of 2013

Our Top 10 local stories of 2013

Rabbi Chuck Diamond
Rabbi Chuck Diamond

Rabbi Chuck Diamond’s recent announcement that he would begin officiating at interfaith weddings led to considerable debate.

It’s wasn’t that Diamond, spiritual leader of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation, made a groundbreaking decision; it wasn’t. But his comments, and the Chronicle’s coverage of the announcement, were widely disseminated online and touched off several comments by rabbis from different streams.

And, as the Chronicle reported, the decision raises questions about TOL*OLS’s future with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella synagogue arm of the movement, which TOL*OLS helped to found some 100 years ago. Even if the two entities resolve their differences over dues, Diamond’s decision is problematic for the movement.

How will these issues work out? We shall see in 2014. But for now, Diamond’s decision is our choice for the top local story of Jewish Pittsburgh in 2013.

What follows is the balance of our top 10 selections:

2. Litigation hits community

Sadly, 2013 was a year of some disturbing lawsuits affecting institutions and members of Jewish Pittsburgh.

First came the employment discrimination lawsuit brought against Congregation Beth Shalom by its former executive director, Sandee Bloom, which the congregation is contesting.

Then came a suit by Rabbi Martin Shorr against his former congregation, Hadar Israel in New Castle, claiming the congregation interfered with his job search in Dayton, Ohio.

Most recently, the parents of a baby boy who was severely injured during his bris this past April have sued a community mohel, Rabbi Mordechai Rosenberg, for negligence. The suit touched off waves of online chatter, mostly by critics of circumcision, though the attorney for the parents said the case is not about the practice, but about his clients’ specific experience.

3. Cemetery for interfaith families announced   

Congregation Beth Shalom (Conservative) and Temple Ohav Shalom (Reform) announced a rare collaboration this year when they said they’ll cooperate to open a cemetery where interfaith families can be buried.

Specifically, Ohav Shalom will open its own cemetery, which will accommodate interfaith families, on an unused portion of Beth Shalom’s cemetery property. The new cemetery will adjoin Beth Shalom’s,  located in Shaler Township, not far from Ohav Shalom, and will be separated from the Beth Shalom cemetery, which, as a traditional Conservative cemetery, permits only Jews to be buried there. Many of Ohav Shalom’s members, however, are in interfaith marriages.

The two congregations spent months negotiating the deal.

4. South Hills Initiative rolled out

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh received $1 million in 2013 to create a new community engagement initiative in the South Hills.

The money, which came from two individual donors, 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.

The idea took root after one of the donors, who is from the South Hills, offered the Federation $500,000 specifically to strengthen Jewish life there.

Federation President and CEO Jeffrey Finkelstein dubbed the five-year plan the “Cadillac Plan,” and said it calls for hiring a full-time staff person and for raising a second million dollars to help fund programming.

5. Record-breaking campaign ends

And speaking of the Federation, the 2012-13 Annual Campaign set a new record this year, raising $13.35 million and netting 240 new donors. Both achievements were rare at this time for North American federations, many of which were struggling with declines in giving in a tough economy.

6. Chevra Kadisha of Pittsburgh expanded

With the settlement of Rabbi Daniel Wasserman’s nationally publicized suit against the state, enabling him to perform Jewish burials without a funeral director, the Chevra Kadisha of Pittsburgh, of which he is a director, took steps to expand its operation.

The chevra kadisha, which is under the auspices of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh, opened a physical space on lower Murray Avenue to perform tahara and shmira (washing and watching) of the dead. Additionally, Wasserman and other members of the chevra kadisha are planning to expand the organizational structure of the effort as well as educate the community about traditional Jewish burial practices.

Wasserman also asked his colleagues within the Orthodox community to provide education and guidance to members of their congregations when there are deaths in their families.

7. State-of-art Early Development Center opened at JCC

The Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh opened its new $2 million Annabelle Rubinstein Early Childhood Development Center at the Squirrel Hill JCC.

The center, which serves children ages 6 weeks to 5 years, replaces a 30-year-old facility in the same building that was in need of renovation.

Eight weeks in construction, the center was serving 216 children a day (280 including afternoon enrichment programs) at its opening.

The center was built to reflect its new learning philosophy, Reggio Emilia, which immerses children in a dynamic learning process, creating their own learning environment. The Agency for Jewish Learning (AJL) brought this change initiative to the JCC and assisted them in implementing them. The Italian-

developed approach is on display in the studio where children are exposed to painting, cooking, word work, clay and textiles, not to mention coffee-table books of great creatures, famous artists and a host of other subjects.

8. Repair the World took Jewish Values to East End

Repair the World, an initiative being piloted in four cities — Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — opened here this year, with the goal of mobilizing young Jews to improve conditions in disadvantaged neighborhoods while addressing critical needs such as hunger and education.

According to its local director, Zach Block, Repair has recruited 32 fellows who will be stationed in the four pilot cities. The fellows will in turn recruit volunteers, engaging a corps of young Jews in a variety of social action projects. Nine of those fellows will be situated in Pittsburgh.

In exchange for their service, Repair provides them with housing, health insurance, a bus pass and a small monthly stipend.

9. CDS dedicated Holocaust sculpture made with pop tabs

Before a crowd of hundreds, Community Day School dedicated the Gary and Nancy Tuckfelt Keeping Tabs Holocaust Sculpture.

The sculpture culminated 18 years of work that began with a middle school history lesson and a single pop can tab.

Since 1996, the CDS community collected 6 million aluminum can tabs. Once the tabs were collected and counted, they lived in 148 aquariums in history teacher Bill Walter’s classroom for six years before the idea to turn them into a memorial was discussed.

Elena Hiatt Houlihan, an artist in residence at the Pennsylvania Arts Council, worked with the students for one year, teaching them about installation art and helping them design the memorial. They came up with a variety of ideas for its design, but ultimately chose a fractured Star of David people can walk through.

The sculpture is made of 960 clear, glass blocks that are filled with the tabs.

10. Pittsburgh hosted international Yiddish festival

Pittsburgh played host to the 15th International Yiddish Conference and Retreat.

Specficially, members of Yiddish Laybt, Pittsburgh’s Yiddish club, welcomed the conference, which attracted lovers of Yiddish from around the world.

Activities ranged from a discourse on Chaim Grade and Isaac Bashevis Singer by Harvard professor of Yiddish literature Ruth Wisse, to musical performances by a host of Jewish entertainers.

But the main attraction was the gathering of so many Yiddish speakers in one place where they had the chance to speak the language. Casual conversations in Yiddish could be overheard throughout the halls of the hotel, if not quite evoking 19th-century Eastern Europe, then at least harking back to the mid-20th century.