One of Pittsburgh’s best-known scholars and rabbis will be making the move to Israel in August of 2009.
Rabbi Danny Schiff, spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak and community scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning, will move with his family to the Jewish state after 17 years in Pittsburgh.
“We were on sabbatical in Israel from April to August this year,” Schiff said. “It’s something we started to think about it. We thought it would be several years from now. Late in the fall, we came to the realization that if we were going to be able to have our kids do some of their schooling in Israel it had to be sooner than later.”
Schiff’s two kids, who are David, 14 and Adina, 12, will enroll in school in Israel. He said they had mixed feelings about the move.
“They had a mixture of excitement and some amount of nervousness,” he said.
Schiff informed the AJL and B’nai Israel Monday that he would be leaving in August. On Tuesday morning, the members of his congregation received an
e-mail informing them of his decision.
“The ties that bind us to you, the members of B’nai Israel in White Oak, are more than congregational in nature: you are, in so many ways, our extended family,” the e-mail said. “No community could have offered us more caring, affection, support, or encouragement than you have. Our decision to leave revolves around the great excitement that we feel about being a part of the dynamic contemporary miracle that the State of Israel represents.”
His departure came as a shock to the acting president of B’nai Israel, Steven Mayer.
“I’ve spoken to a few people,” Mayer said. “Everyone is just very, very sad. Everyone is in a state of shock — nobody expected this. But we’ve had 15 very wonderful years, myself and the congregation only wish him the best in their move to Israel.”
The AJL knows they too will have a big hole to fill when Schiff departs.
“I’m saddened; we’ll be losing an amazing resource for our community,” said Ed Frim, executive director of the AJL. “On the other hand I wish Danny and his family well.”
Schiff, who has been with the AJL for 15 years, has done extensive work with the Florence Melton Mini-School, which offers continuing Jewish education to adults.
“A testament to his work is that Pittsburgh is about to pass a milestone; we’re about to pass 1,000 graduates [of Melton],” Frim said. “We have more graduates than any community in the entire world.”
In addition to the Melton program, Schiff leads studies in other areas of Jewish learning.
“We probably have between 700-800 Jewish students that study regularly with us,” Frim said. “Many of them are here because of Danny. They came and liked what they found and stayed.”
While specifics for their move to Israel are still being made, Schiff said the family hopes to move to Jerusalem. Where his kids go to school will be based on where they live.
Schiff also doesn’t know what he or his wife will do once they get to Israel, but says that isn’t an uncommon thing.
“Neither of us have jobs at this point,” he said. “The way it works in Israel, come first and we’ll find something when you get here. “
The move is not for good — at least not for now. Schiff and his family will evaluate their situation after a year and see how things are going.
“We plan to move there for a year, and then to evaluate what we will do going forward,” Schiff said. “We certainly hope everything will work out and we’ll stay in Israel.”
However, no matter where they are, Schiff said that it was not an easy decision to leave Pittsburgh, and that the Jewish community here is something they will truly miss.
“I’m going to miss it tremendously,” he said. “I came to Pittsburgh with no knowledge of what a wonderful Jewish community I would find. It’s a wonderful community here, it’s a strong, cohesive community and very Jewish-oriented. It’s been a privilege to serve it.”
Schiff will continue to serve B’nai Israel and continue his work at the AJL up until the move in August. As for helping find his successors, he said he would be willing to do anything either organization asks.
“I am prepared to be helpful in any way desirable,” Schiff said. “Both organizations will be looking for individuals who will be the future after I’m gone.”
Both Mayer and Frim said that Schiff would have a role in finding his replacement at the AJL and B’nai Israel.
“He’ll have a voice I’m sure,” Frim said. “He’s leaving here on very good terms. I hope he will be coming back to us and doing work for us in the future.”
B’nai Israel is already preparing for Schiff’s departure.
“A search committee has already been assigned,” Mayer said. “They will be working on a replacement immediately. He has volunteered to help in any way we can. And believe me we will rely on him.”
While Frim and his staff just heard about the news on Monday, they don’t have much information about how the search will go.
“You can’t fill his shoes, but you have to fill his position.”
(Mike Zoller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)