Rabbi Danny Schiff, former community scholar at the now-defunct Agency for Jewish Learning and former spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak, will be returning to Pittsburgh this fall to assume the newly created position of Federation scholar.
Schiff and his family made aliyah in 2009 after serving the Pittsburgh community for 17 years. His new position, under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, will allow him to remain in Israel for six months of the year while being present in Pittsburgh for six months.
The role of Federation scholar is a one-year pilot program, which was developed to help imbue with Jewish content the way in which the Federation functions as an organization. It is funded by a grant from the Federation’s Jewish Community Foundation, the Federation’s planned-giving arm that enables donors to create permanent endowment funds.
Schiff’s responsibilities will include working with Federation staff, lay leadership and volunteers to add “Jewish context and learning to their work”; to “inspire donors”; and to train professional advisers — such as accountants, lawyers and estate planners — in how to talk about Jewish philanthropy with their clients, according to Dan Brandeis, Jewish Community Foundation director.
While Brandeis anticipates that Schiff will be available on a limited basis to provide educational opportunities for the community at large, his primary role will be as an internal Federation resource.
Schiff will be employed by the Federation on a three-quarter-time basis, and, in addition to being in Pittsburgh for six nonconsecutive months out of the year, will work from Israel for three months, Brandeis said.
The Federation’s intent in hiring Schiff is to help the organization make decisions in sync with Jewish values.
“We have been challenged before with the question of ‘what do we do to act like a Jewish organization?’” Brandeis said. “How do you make decisions through a Jewish lens?”
Schiff, Brandeis said, is just the man to help answer those questions.
Born in Australia, Schiff earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Melbourne and received ordination, as well as a master of arts in Hebrew Letters, from the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC–JIR).
He earned a doctor of Hebrew letters degree from HUC–JIR and a master of arts in museum studies from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Schiff has written extensively on Jewish law and ethics and is the author of the book “Abortion in Judaism,” published by Cambridge University Press. He is a former board member of the City of Pittsburgh Ethics Board and the Society of Jewish Ethics.
“The objective that I have for this role is to bring Jewish learning to every facet of the Federation’s activity,” said Schiff, reached at his home in Jerusalem.
Schiff praised the Federation for making Jewish learning a priority among its staff, lay leaders and volunteers.
“There are very few Federations around the country that have made Jewish learning such a priority as to appoint a scholar to bring this depth of learning to Federation activities, so the Pittsburgh Federation is really taking a thoughtful, leading initiative.”
He is confident that the education he will bring internally to the Federation will likewise strengthen the community at large.
“We live at a time when Jewish education at every level is a pressing need for a Jewish community. So, while the objective is to bring Jewish education into Federation activities, the Federation is clearly there to serve as a resource for the community. The hope is that it will strengthen the Federation internally, but also the community more generally.”
Pittsburgh’s Federation is one of only a handful of Federations around the country to employ a scholar to infuse Jewish values into its pursuits. Miami, Chicago and New York are among them.
The benefits to the community, when an in-house rabbi is guiding its Federation, are tangible, according to Lyn Light-Geller, executive director of educational resources and organizational development of the UJA-Federation of New York.
Rabbi Michael Paley has been on staff at New York’s Federation for 18 years and has served as its in-house scholar for about 15 of those years, Light-Geller said.
“He helps to build community among our lay leaders and our donors,” she said. “It’s not just about educating them, but also about engaging them in study and building community. He is able to instill a sense of Jewish values. His presence here infuses everything we do with a Jewish flavor.
“I think this is a great step forward for the Pittsburgh Federation,” she added. “Don’t underestimate the impact.”
Schiff, who plans to arrive in Pittsburgh in October, is looking forward to reconnecting with the community here. Since he moved to Israel, he has returned to Pittsburgh several times each year for teaching projects and to work on a concept for a museum project he is developing.
“What a wonderful city it is, and what a strong, thoughtful, passionate and committed Jewish community we have,” he said. “It is large enough to achieve great things and small enough for people to know each other and feel they belong to a true community.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.