Rabbi proposes solutions to shrinking population

Rabbi proposes solutions to shrinking population

Rabbi Mark Staitman (left) and Jeffrey Pollock pose for a photo at the recent ZOA lecture.

(Photo courtesy of ZOA)
Rabbi Mark Staitman (left) and Jeffrey Pollock pose for a photo at the recent ZOA lecture. (Photo courtesy of ZOA)

The Pittsburgh Jewish community is a shadow of its former self, but Rabbi Mark Staitman says he has solutions for the demographic decline. After juxtaposing dismal figures and depressing anecdotes, the Congregation Beth Shalom rabbinic scholar proposed various strategies for combating a declining local Jewish population during a June 19 talk at New Light Congregation. His observations and collateral plans were based upon 40 years of practice and generations of Jewish thought, he told the nearly 50 people gathered.

Staitman’s remarks were delivered as part of the Kandy Reidbord Ehrenwerth Memorial Lecture. The event, which perpetuates the memory of Ehrenwerth, a prominent local attorney who was tragically killed in an automobile accident in 1992, is supported by friends and family through an endowment to provide ongoing contemporary dialogue pertaining to the Jewish community, explained David Ehrenwerth, her widower.  

The Ehrenwerth Lecture, which coincides with the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Zionist Organization of America’s biannual meeting, functions as both a means of engaging relevant topics as well as recalling a woman who was both a “dedicated Zionist” and someone concerned with “individual rights,” noted Stuart Pavilack, executive director of ZOA: Pittsburgh.

Staitman’s talk began with a startling presentation.

“When I came to Pittsburgh in 1975 there were 56,000 Jews in Pittsburgh” by 1980, that number had decreased to 52,000, and today, the sum is much less, he noted.

“When I came to Rodef Shalom in 1975, there were 94 confirmation students. This year, there were five,” explained the former rabbi of the congregation.

“In 1975, there were 620 students in the religious school,” he remarked. Yet, if one were to combine all of the currently registered students from the Conservative and Reform religious schools, the total would be “nowhere near that today.”

Staitman continued by stating that in 1975, there were 90 people on average who attended Friday night services at Rodef Shalom each week and another 175 attendees for Saturday morning prayers. Nowadays, “there are very few congregations other than the Orthodox ones that have 175 on Saturday mornings.”  

Pittsburgh’s vanishing Jewish community is because of several reasons, said the speaker. Many people, himself included, have children who, despite being raised in the Steel City and still support the Pirates, Penguins and Steelers, have chosen to live elsewhere.

“The second reason is intermarriage,” he remarked.

From 1975 until today, the number of Jews who marry non-Jews has swelled from 42 percent to upward of “60 to 65 percent,” he said.

The final cause of population shrinkage is a self-imposed negative perception of Judaism, noted Staitman. “My parents instilled in me, through how we lived, to see ourselves in positive Jewish ways.”

However, such attitudes no longer exist. Perhaps due to affiliation expenses or the shifting anti-Zionist fervor demonstrated by “Jews who are extremely liberal with everything except for Israel,” an overall disinterest has plagued the populace such that Judaism and the State of Israel are no longer valued, he said.  Nonetheless, “we have a set of principles by which to look at things.”

Specifically, there is a Torah-based belief that “all of Israel is holy,” as well as a Talmudic concept that “when we have the opportunity to increase in holiness or decrease in holiness, we always choose to increase,” he said.

Accordingly, the community should be treated with attendant philosophies. When it comes to intermarriage, more emphasis should be placed on welcoming the non-Jewish spouse, he said. Historically, there was a concept of a ger tzedek, said Staitman, where a non-Jewish person essentially lived among the community as a Jewish member.

“We need to find ways to accommodate to those people who have never converted,” Staitman explained.

Secondly, the time for individual congregations has passed, he said.

Because of the expenses involved in operating synagogues, more mergers should occur.

And finally, once these coalitions are created, a community tax could support their continuance.

“We need a new funding structure” in which the the annual levy reflects pre-war Europe when local individuals supported broadly communal institutions, said Staitman.  

As for other ways to negate reduction, the rabbi noted that there are “two things that build commitment to Israel and Judaism.”

Those are “speaking Hebrew” and finding “ways to have people go to Israel for extended periods of time and to work there. We have to encourage people to do it,” he said.

Staitman concluded by urging listeners to continue supporting the State of Israel and reminding politicians of Israel’s value. “The government needs to know how important it is to you,” he said.

Staitman’s comments were warmly received.

His ideas were “very good, except nobody has the solution to the problem. Everybody is only interested in their own little world,” said Joe Titlebaum of Polish Hill.  

Staitman anticipated such reaction when describing the title of his talk, “The Rapidly Evolving Jewish Community: Big Challenges and Creative Solutions.”

Said the rabbi, “It’s easier to talk about big challenges.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at adamr@thejewishchronicle.net.

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