Steel City shlichim recall past service with pride
Many shlichim, or emissaries, have spent times in the city building bridges between Pittsburgh and Israel. Here, some reflect on their experiences in celebration of Israel at 70.
Israelis who spent their days in the Steel City building bridges between Pittsburgh and the Jewish state have over the years been the faces of Israel for countless members of the community. In celebration of Israel’s 70th anniversary of its independence, some of them reflected on their experiences here.
“It was a special experience to come to a new place, meet new people and do a job in a new community. It was one of the best things,” said Maymon Peer, a resident of Kiryat Bialik, a suburb of Haifa.
Between 2007 and 2009, Peer served as a shliach, an emissary, to the Pittsburgh Jewish community through a Jewish Agency for Israel project, which ended its Pittsburgh affiliation in 2012.
Working closely with lay leaders on projects to synergize the Diaspora and Israeli communities, Leehee Kanne played a similar role to Peer between 2007 and 2009 and again from 2010 to 2012.
“My very first interview, I was interviewed by seven people,” the Tel Aviv resident recalled of her first introduction to Pittsburgh. “At first I thought it was daunting but then I thought it was impressive.” The amount of interested participants demonstrated “how collaborative the Jewish community is.”
“It’s an unbelievable Jewish community,” echoed Tzachi Levy, who held the position between 2004 and 2005.
“The Pittsburgh Jewish community collaborates really well, no matter the affiliation. It doesn’t matter what synagogue you go to, people work extremely well together,” said Kanne.
The fact that Pittsburghers can coalesce and effectuate collective endeavors is a rarity that residents should be prideful of, she said. “In other communities there are three different Israel Independence Day celebrations.”
Pittsburgh’s unanimity is “a great example of how a Jewish community should function,” added Levy, who is currently acting as an emissary in Washington, D.C., through 2020.
Noteworthy to past shlichim is the area’s geographic and demographic makeup.
“I love the fact that a lot of it is based in one neighborhood. It’s really special,” said Kanne. “Sometimes you can look at a community and they stay in one place and they don’t let outsiders in, but it’s not like that in Pittsburgh. There’s a very special character. It feels like a kibbutz.
“You walk down the street and you know people,” Kanne added, “and I think that the Jewish community has been a big part in making that happen.”
Where Pittsburgh truly excels is at “greeting new people and making them feel at home,” agreed Leah Garber, a shlicha between 2004 and 2007.
The Modi’in resident, who credited her experiences here with enabling her to be a vice president and Israel office director of the JCC Association, arrived in Pittsburgh more than a decade ago with her husband and their five daughters.
“My daughters went to Hillel Academy and had many friends,” said Garber. “It was an extremely welcoming warm Jewish community.”
“I call her my American mom,” said Kanne. “When she’s in Israel she just stays with me or my parents.”
Whether via visits abroad or on social media, the shlichim remain connected to their Pittsburgh neighbors and friends.
For Peer, professional sports serve as a link to his former home.
“We are fans of the Pirates. My son follows all of the games. We hope the next time the Steelers will be in the Super Bowl we will be in Pittsburgh,” said the lawyer, who specializes in municipalities, labor and human rights.
But more than maintaining an affinity for the black and gold, it is the personal connections that most resonate.
“Just yesterday I was in a funeral of a friend of mine from Pittsburgh,” added Peer. Zvi Shuldiner, an Israeli expat, “lived in Pittsburgh since the ’70s and he was the first person who knocked on my door on my first day in Pittsburgh.”
There was this sense that upon arrival, shlichim were not only received but valued for their ideas and contributions, noted Garber.
“The community was very welcoming to me and I consider Pittsburgh my home,” said Kanne.
Added Peer, “Pittsburgh will always have a special place in my heart.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.