SARASOTA, Fla. — Pittsburgh’s Jewish snowbirds may head to Florida for the winter intending to escape the chilly climate up north, but their intention is not necessarily to escape from each other.
More than 90 Jewish Pittsburghers came together at the Vue Sarasota Bay on Feb. 14 for cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, camaraderie and learning at an event sponsored by the Jewish Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. The program featured a discussion with The New York Times op-ed staff editor and writer Bari Weiss, moderated by Foundation Scholar Rabbi Danny Schiff.
A similar event took place on Feb. 12 in Boca Raton. That program attracted 140 guests.
The Federation has been hosting events in Florida for two decades, offering not only the opportunity for staff members to reconnect with Pittsburgh supporters, but to give snowbirds a chance to connect with each other.
“It’s wonderful for the Pittsburgh Jewish community to be together,” remarked Bette Balk, who lives in the South Hills in the warmer months, but heads to her home in Longboat Key with her husband Phil when the temperatures begin to drop. “We don’t run into each other spontaneously, and it’s so nice to reconnect.”
Ellen and Michael Roteman have been coming down to Lakewood Ranch in the winter for the past nine years, heading south as soon “as baseball season is over in mid-October” and going back to Pittsburgh for opening day, said Michael Roteman, who happens to be the president of the Pirates/Bradenton booster club.
In addition to getting a chance to mingle with friends and former colleagues from Pittsburgh (Ellen worked as the Federation’s marketing director for several years), the Rotemans come to the annual snowbird event to support the Federation.
“We come because of the great work the Federation does, particularly this year,” said Michael Roteman, referencing the Federation’s efforts in the aftermath of the Tree of Life massacre. The Rotemans were in Florida on Oct. 27, and “felt separated from our community.”
The Feb. 14 gathering was the first opportunity to reconnect with Jewish Pittsburgh and to thank Federation staffers for “the tremendous work they did during those trying times. We feel we are home with these people,” Roteman said.
For many, the annual event is all about friendship. Ralph Liebstein and his wife, Arlene Levy, who have a home in Sarasota, have made it a point to come to the Foundation event for the last three years.
“My wife likes to meet old friends and stay in touch with the Pittsburgh Jewish community,” Liebstein said.
This year saw a “record-breaking” attendance at both Florida programs, according to Sharon Perelman, the Foundation’s associate director and director of planned giving. She attributed the larger numbers to the inclusion of Weiss as a featured speaker.
Weiss, 34, is the daughter of Pittsburghers Amy and Lou Weiss. She grew up in Squirrel Hill and attended Community Day School. After graduating from Columbia University, she was the news and politics editor at Tablet magazine, then worked at The Wall Street Journal before moving to the Times. Her politics cannot easily be pigeonholed, as she criticizes the left and the right alike, and her opinions are often controversial. She has been a recurrent guest on the HBO talk show “Real Time with Bill Maher.” She describes herself as a Zionist and frequently speaks out against anti-Semitism.
Some in attendance came to the event specifically to hear Weiss speak, with the social aspect of the program taking a back seat.
“I’m here because of Bari speaking,” said David Glosser, a Johnstown native who has lived in Sarasota for 24 years. “Bari has a very realistic perspective on being able to cut through the chaff on some of the politicized issues with Israel.”
The crowd listened raptly as Schiff and Weiss discussed several aspects of 21st century anti-Semitism, gun control and even sexting — all prefaced by the explicit caveat that “nothing we say is endorsed by the Federation or the Foundation,” Schiff said.
Weiss criticized President Donald Trump for trafficking in conspiracy-minded thinking that enables anti-Semitism — “opening the gates to the barbarians on the right,” she said — but stressed that she was also concerned with the “systemic anti-Semitism smuggled into the mainstream in the guise of progressive values.”
While the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is “less immediately lethal” than anti-Semitism coming from the far right, it could be “more of an existential threat.”
Far-right anti-Semitism, she said, is often perpetrated by outcast loners, while left-wing anti-Semitism is typically “focused on Israel” and espoused by people with otherwise progressive values.
A recurring position on the far-left suggests that “Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, deserves to be wiped off the map,” Weiss said, adding that “anti-Zionism needs to be confronted for what it is: an elimination strategy for the Jewish people.”
Since the founding of the State of Israel, she said, “I don’t think anti-Zionism is a moral position.”
That Weiss is a free-thinker, colorful, untethered and refuses to toe the line on either the Republican or Democratic platform became evident when she moved onto other issues. She proffered her thoughts on gun control (she is in favor of repealing the Second Amendment) as well as what she topically referred to as “Jeff Bezos’ penis,” calling for a day of amnesty, where everyone is free to sext without concern of being publicly shamed.
Speaking to a hometown crowd which included her parents and her grandmother was particularly meaningful to Weiss.
“I have been traveling the country doing lots of lectures about anti-Semitism and Israel,” she said prior to the event, “but nothing is as special as speaking to a group of Pittsburghers, especially when one of those Pittsburghers is my grandmother, [Andy Weiss].” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.