Seeking a connection: Being Jewish in the northern suburbs has its challenges

Seeking a connection: Being Jewish in the northern suburbs has its challenges

Mars, Pa., has about as many Jewish families as Mars, the planet. Well, maybe just a few more, but they are rare.

Ian Halper and his wife, Heather, moved to the Mars area in Butler County about six years ago when their daughter Rayna was 4; they had lived in Cranberry for about nine years prior to that. In their current neighborhood, the Halpers are aware of only one other Jewish family, and their daughter is the only Jewish child in her grade.

Seeking out a Jewish neighborhood wasn’t a concern for the Halpers, though; they knew that when the time came, they’d seek out a religious school for their daughter. In fact, it was Rayna herself who began to express interest in religious school, leading the Halpers to join Temple Ohav Shalom in McCandless. “That’s what flipped the switch for us,” said Ian Halper.

Synagogue membership has been key for the Halpers to connect with other Jewish friends.

Halper grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in New Jersey, where there were a number of Jewish families and synagogues nearby. He said that it is challenging to live a Jewish life when there is no easy proximity to family, although he does have relatives in Mt. Lebanon, where he has spent many Jewish holidays.

“We get emails from the [Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh] about some events, but they are in the city, and we’re not going that direction typically,” said Halper. “I don’t know what activities would get us more involved, but I know that is a two-way road.”

The Shalom Pittsburgh Outreach Division has brought some events to the North Hills. In fact, a chance meeting with some Jewish families at a Shalom Pittsburgh snowshoeing event at North Park four years ago became Heidi Pantanowitz’s lifeline to the North Hills Jewish community.

Pantanowitz and her husband are originally from South Africa. They moved to Pine Township four years ago from Longmeadow, Mass.; prior to that they lived in Boston for five years. Pantanowitz said that in Boston, she found “an instant Jewish community,” primarily because two of her siblings already lived there and had connected with many other South African Jews.

But finding other Jewish families in and around the North Hills was much more of a challenge, especially since the family did not choose to join a North Hills-based synagogue. They did connect with Chabad of Fox Chapel, though most of the people they met through Chabad did not live in their vicinity.

“If I had moved here when my kids were younger, I would have immediately taken them to the preschool [at Temple Ohav Shalom], and I would have met Jewish families that way,” she said, which is how she met many Jewish families in Longmeadow. Plus, Longmeadow has a large Jewish population, so she met other Jewish families simply by participating in neighborhood events.

“I feel like my and my kids’ Jewish identity was established long before we came here; maybe don’t need a community as much as when the kids were little,” she said.

Nonetheless, Pantanowitz is now Shalom Pittsburgh’s North Hills Outreach chair and has also participated in several North Hills-based events, including a wine tasting, dinners and snow tubing. But she feels that the North Hills community is still segregated from the greater Pittsburgh Jewish community.

“It is hard to be connected outside of a synagogue membership,” she said. “I think Shalom Pittsburgh has great intentions, and they really do want to see the North Hills as an extension of the Pittsburgh Jewish community. So many things are happening in Pittsburgh, but realistically we’re not going to be taking advantage of them.”

Pantanowitz said that between homework and kids’ activities, it’s not feasible to drive into the city mid-week. “We live too far away,” she said.

Mark and Olga Pizov live in McCandless with their two sons. Olga grew up in Squirrel Hill, while Mark grew up in a neighborhood in New Jersey that had more synagogues than churches. Mark is a former chairman of Shalom Pittsburgh North.

The Pizovs met the vast majority of their North Hills Jewish friends through synagogue membership. And despite the distance, the Pizovs still make it a point to take advantage of Jewish activities in the city when they are able.

“Everything in North Hills is far away; you’re used to driving around to get somewhere, so it’s all relative,” said Mark Pizov. Nonetheless, if they want to participate in regular events in the city, it becomes more of a challenge.

The Pizovs send their children to Emma Kaufmann Camp and encourage BBYO membership, which, they believe, is a primary way for their kids to meet other Pittsburgh Jewish kids.

“For us, living where we live, it is a concerted effort to maintain our Jewish identity, and really that of our kids,” said Pizov. “We could just as easily have society dictate what ‘being Jewish’ is, but we want to be in control of that so for that reason, we find avenues where we can express that and really participate in formal Jewish gatherings.”

Those avenues, however, do not include too many events in the North Hills. “There are not enough things going on in the North Hills,” he added.

Bill Burton is used to being in the center of Jewish life. Though his southeastern Connecticut hometown wasn’t overly Jewish, he was quite active in USY and attended Brandeis University. For 22 years, Burton lived and worked in the Washington, D.C. area, dubbing his first apartment “the Jewish Melrose Place.” Prior to coming to Pittsburgh with his wife and two elementary school-aged sons last year, he lived in Potomac, Md., which has a significant Jewish population.

Burton’s family settled in Edgeworth outside Sewickley, which was based on the decision to send his sons to Sewickley Academy. Plus, he said, had they lived in the city, it would have made his wife’s commute to her new job more difficult.

A challenge for the Burton family was finding kosher meat.

“That took some time for me to explore and research around the Pittsburgh area in order to find places where we could buy kosher meat,” he said. Ultimately he found three such stores, all of which are about a half-hour from his home.

To connect with the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, his family explored synagogue membership soon after arriving and joined Beth El in Mt. Lebanon, where Burton is now a religious school teacher.

Burton believes it’s more difficult to become immersed in the Pittsburgh Jewish community than it had been in D.C., or even in other major cities, owing in part to the fact that many Pittsburghers have lived here for successive generations.

“Pittsburgh, more than many cities in the country, is significantly less transient than other metro areas,” he explained. “For example, in D.C., families are constantly coming in and out of the area for new jobs; therefore, the social scene is in constant turnover, people are constantly making new friends, and social circles are much more open.”

While it can be isolating to be Jewish in a non-Jewish environment, Burton said that there is a bright side. “The harder you try to express your Jewishness, the more meaningful it is.”

Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at

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