It almost sounds like the beginning of a familiar joke: there was this rabbi, this reverend and a monsignor.
But 50 years later, the South Hills Interfaith Movement — begun in 1968 by Rabbi William Sajowitz of Temple Emanuel, Rev. John Galbreath of Westminster Presbyterian Church and Monsignor Francis Rooney of St. Thomas More Catholic Church — is still going strong, continuing to help those in need as well as fostering interfaith collaboration.
Celebrating a half century of service to the community is “pretty wonderful,” said James Guffey, SHIM’s executive director since 2007. The organization held a celebratory dinner in May honoring supporters Becky and John Surma (former CEO of U.S. Steel), but Guffey said the tribute to SHIM will continue by planning ahead for the next 50 years.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about our work,” he said. “We want to look at what we do well, and how we can make more of an impact.”
America was in a state of flux in 1968, a consequence of such events as the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, violent riots and, on a more promising note, the enactment of the Civil Rights Act.
Changes were also afoot in Pittsburgh’s South Hills at that time; its population continued to increase along with the number of underserved residents requiring various forms of assistance.
The time was right for the launch of SHIM, which was then known as “South Hills Ministry in the Mall,” consisting of a small, makeshift venture in the newly opened South Hills Village, providing food, clothing and other services for those in need.
Counseling and other supportive services were added in the 1970s and ’80s, as well as interfaith programming, including an annual Holocaust Observance, one of the longest-running interfaith Thanksgiving services in the country, and interfaith dialogue events.
By the late 1990s, with an influx of refugees being resettled in South Hills neighborhoods, SHIM launched programming to aid those new to the United States, including educational and childcare support.
It’s about helping those who are hungry and welcoming the immigrant. Working through SHIM is almost like welcoming someone to your own table.
Throughout its history, SHIM has partnered with Jewish organizations in the South Hills, as well as Greater Pittsburgh, in realizing its mission, including Jewish Family and Community Services.
“JFCS has been extremely fortunate to have a partner like SHIM,” said Jordan Golin, president and CEO of JFCS. “Our partnership with them has allowed individuals in the South Hills to more easily access critical services, such as our Career Development Center, right in their own community. SHIM has also worked closely with JFCS to serve the foreign-born residents of the South Hills. We share their vision of inclusion and of giving all people the opportunity to thrive.”
The South Hills is home to the largest group of refugees and immigrants in the Greater Pittsburgh area, many of whom came from refugee camps. And 20 percent of families in the South Hills make less than $35,000 a year, qualifying for free food and clothing provided by SHIM.
Meg Abrams, a member of Temple Emanuel of South Hills, has been volunteering to help with SHIM initiatives, such as food and clothing drives, since she moved to Pittsburgh 16 years ago.
“I’ve always found SHIM’s broad humanitarianism very inspiring,” Abrams said. “It’s about helping those who are hungry and welcoming the immigrant. Working through SHIM is almost like welcoming someone to your own table.
“Its mission speaks to all churches, to all synagogues, to all mosques, and that’s the appeal to me,” Abrams added.
About 280 people volunteer with SHIM on a regular basis, with additional volunteers helping out with special projects.
In addition to its current offering of services and programming, Guffey hopes to include a partnership with the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement, to encourage discourse in the South Hills on issues affecting the fabric of society.
“What kind of community do we want to leave for our kids?” is a question which Guffey said he would like to address. “How can we come together to talk about our different perspectives and not in a confrontational way?”
Guffey also intends to work more closely with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh in developing programming for SHIM’s annual interfaith Holocaust Observance.
“It takes collaboration,” he said. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.