After a year of award-winning journalism, The Jewish Chronicle would like to look back on the stories that captivated our community in 2016. Appearing in chronological order, the following 10 excerpts of stories offer a smattering of the things that got people talking last year.
January: Consulate axed in Foreign Ministry cutbacks
The Israeli Foreign Ministry announced its intention to close its consulate in Philadelphia along with four of its other consulates as a cost-saving measure.
The consulate in Philadelphia served the mid-Atlantic region, which includes all of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware, Kentucky and southern New Jersey.
“We’ve known for a while that Israel was considering closing the office in Philadelphia, but we were hopeful that they would elect not to,” said Josh Sayles, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “That office has always been a good friend and partner of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.”
Pittsburgh is now served by the Consulate General of Israel in New York City.
February: Jews and opioid addiction
According to the Centers for Disease Control, between 1999 and 2015, more than 183,000 people died in the United States from overdoses related to prescription opioids. As the nation turned its attention to the heroin and the opioid abuse crisis, we looked inward. With on-the- street reporting of those most affected, we revealed that the heroin and opioid epidemic discriminates neither demographically nor geographically. In an attempt to awaken others to this reality, several members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community shared their struggles and suffering.
The story garnered considerable traffic among readers and marked the beginning of a communitywide conversation on assistance, responsibilities and faith.
March: JNF restructuring
After the departure of its sole Pittsburgh staffer, the Jewish National Fund decided to retain a Pittsburgh presence by restructuring its staffing. With the hiring of Jason Rose, the JNF ensured a professional connection with its Western Pennsylvania chapter. Rose, who is stationed in Minnesota, is responsible for chapters in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and St. Louis, and travels to Pittsburgh regularly to work with members of the local board of directors.
“The JNF restructuring is about delivering more resources to Pittsburgh, not less,” said Rose.
June: JF&CS comforting Syrian refugees
As the Syrian people experienced genocide and horrific human rights infractions, local efforts welcomed those refugees able to arrive in Pittsburgh.
For years, Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh (JF&CS) has worked to resettle refugees from war-torn countries including Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan. In 2016, JF&CS worked with HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) as one of 17 affiliate agencies around the United States to aid Syrian refugees, said Leslie Aizenman, JF&CS’s director of refugee and immigrant services.
Resettlement efforts provided by JF&CS include medical services, language instruction, educational services and job placement. However, while only 1 percent of displaced persons actually become resettled to a new country, resettlement is not the ultimate solution, explained Aizenman.
June: Rabbi Walter Jacob honored as Pursuer of Peace
For his impact on the the local and international Jewish community, as well as the community at large, Rabbi Walter Jacob was honored as the 2016 Pursuer of Peace at Rodef Shalom on June 5.
Jacob was the fourth recipient of the award, which is presented every two years by Rodef Shalom Congregation. With his acceptance, Jacob joined Bishop David A. Zubik (2010), William E. Strickland (2012), and Fred Rogers (posthumously in 2014) as a recognized Pursuer of Peace. Jacob was the first Jewish recipient of the honor.
There is “no one more deserving” of the Pursuer of Peace award than Jacob, said Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom.
“When we first conceived of this award, we had in mind persons who dedicate their lives to improving the lives of people around them,” Bisno said. “Numerous families have been touched by the gentleness, guidance and wisdom of Walter Jacob. And communities far beyond our own have been touched because of his work on national Jewish issues.
“This is our congregation’s opportunity to honor a man who has given more than six decades of his life to caring, comforting and guiding this community.”
July: PAJC closes
After more than 70 years of fostering positive interfaith relations, advocating for a host of social justice issues and producing some key players on the national and international stage, the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee — which was part of the national American Jewish Committee until 2009 — closed its office on June 30.
Signature programs of the PAJC included a Christian-Jewish dialogue and a Catholic-Jewish education enrichment project, CJEEP, which brought area rabbis to teach in Pittsburgh’s Catholic schools. CJEEP has been absorbed by the Federation.
Primary reasons for the closure were duplicate services offered throughout the community as well as diminishing support for the organization, explained the group’s leaders.
“What we discovered was that a lot of people were doing the same stuff we were doing,” said Michael Goldstein, president and trustee of the PAJC. “We found ourselves singing to the same people over and over again.”
July: Zalman Shapiro, scientist and supporter of Israel, passed away at 96
Zalman Shapiro, a man whose energetic mind propelled submarines to new depths, died at his Oakland home on July 16. Shapiro was 96.
Throughout his industrious career as a physical chemist and inventor, Shapiro shone. “I think that he was close to genius,” said Ken Goldman, a metallurgist who worked with Shapiro in the 1950s at Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin, Pa.
Shapiro’s scientific contributions at Bettis, such as developing the reactor that powered the USS Nautilus, the world’s first operational nuclear powered submarine, highlighted America’s atomic age. Yet for all of his accomplishments, Shapiro was a “friend and member of the community,” who “had no airs and no pretenses about him,” said Rabbi Daniel Wasserman.
“Zalman Shapiro was a classic gentleman: unpretentious, gracious, always pleasant and thoughtful, always willing to listen to other people’s views but at the same time not ever hesitating to express the views that he believed in,” said Cyril Wecht, a forensic pathologist and longtime friend of Shapiro’s.
Shapiro was a “lover of the Jewish enterprise, of Israel, the Jewish people, religion. He loved everything related to the Jews,” said Lou Weiss, who volunteered alongside Shapiro in the ZOA’s Pittsburgh chapter. “He was always worried about Israel, it was always top of mind with him — anytime you would see him or talk to him Israel was not two sentences away.”
September: Jewish day schools braced for economic shortfall
Pittsburgh’s three Jewish day schools began the school year with anticipated economic constraints. The day schools were advised by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh to prepare for a cumulative budget deficit which could exceed $800,000 during the 2016-17 school year as a result of a decrease in available funds as part of the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program (EITC), explained Sally Stein, manager of corporate and government relations at the Federation.
Since 2001, students of Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, Hillel Academy and Community Day School (CDS) have benefited from the EITC program, which provides a tax break to Pennsylvania businesses that make a donation to a scholarship organization. The three Pittsburgh day schools have been sharing funds that businesses contribute to the Pittsburgh Jewish Educational Improvement Foundation (PJEIF), a qualified charitable organization that is registered with the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) and administered by the Federation. The day schools count on these funds, which for the 2014-2015 school year peaked at about $4.4 million. In 2015-2016, the funds totaled about $3.4 million.
Because over the last several years the funds in the PJEIF have increased annually, those funds “became a significant part of our budget,” said Avi Baran Munro, CDS’s head of school, who along with her colleagues at the other day schools explained that the monetary shortfalls would take on varying effects within each institution.
In response to the economic deficiency, the Federation announced that it had formed a new team, staffed by Roi Mezare, the Federation’s senior manager of financial resource development, and will headed by Billy Rudolph in a volunteer capacity, to solicit businesses to participate in the EITC program, said Jeffrey Finkelstein, Federation’s president and CEO.
September: Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha undergoing changes
Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation and the Jewish Association on Aging are considering creating senior housing for the community, as well as a new synagogue space, on the congregation’s property at the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues.
The two entities entered into a six-month exclusive agreement, or letter of intent, during which time TOL*OLS and the JAA “will seriously examine the feasibility of moving forward together,” TOL*OLS president Michael Eisenberg wrote in a letter to congregants dated Aug. 26.
The exploration followed an announcement that Rabbi Chuck Diamond would leave his position as spiritual leader of TOL*OLS next summer, pursuant to an agreement negotiated by attorneys for the rabbi and synagogue.
Diamond’s planned departure is a consequence of shrinking membership and dues revenue at TOL*OLS, according to Eisenberg.
The congregation can no longer afford to meet the financial terms of Diamond’s 10-year employment contract, which was executed in 2010 and slated to conclude in 2020, Eisenberg said.
Diamond will continue to serve as the rabbi of TOL*OLS until June 30, but will be paid through June 30, 2018, according to the new agreement.
His upcoming departure from the congregation has engendered “mixed emotions,” Diamond said. “I’m very sad. … I’d love to fulfill my contract. There’s a sanctified relationship between a rabbi and his congregants. Some have been with me for a long time. It is very difficult for me to not be able to be there to lead the congregation into the next stage of its existence.”
December: JAA broke ground on new memory care facility
Representatives of the Jewish Association on Aging broke ground on its new AHAVA Memory Care Residence. The facility “is a first for the city of Pittsburgh,” said Deborah Winn-Horvitz, JAA’s president and CEO.
Upon its scheduled opening in the summer of 2017, AHAVA will become Pennsylvania’s only Hearthstone-certified Memory Care Center of Excellence, a designation reflecting the direct influence of Dr. John Zeisel, president and co-founder of Hearthstone Alzheimer Care, Ltd. Zeisel, whose background is in sociology and architecture, is an internationally regarded expert on memory care who focuses on new development, design, teamwork and research.
AHAVA will reflect Zeisel’s approach both in its design and its resident practice, said Winn-Horvitz.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.