Studying community: Pittsburghers finding ways to worship beyond bounds of shul
About 35 percent of Jewish households here are affiliated with a community of worship. Almost half of those are not synagogues.
Keshira haLev Fife breezes through the Squirrel Hill coffee shop, her signature waist-length dreadlocks swinging behind her. It is easy to see how her friendly, dark eyes and gentle, earnest smile could put just about anyone at ease.
She is 40, but appears years younger: hip and new-agey, wearing her spirituality on her sleeve, punctuated by a distinct aura of the mystical.
Fife, the spiritual leader of the worship community Kesher Pittsburgh, stands in stark contrast to most other area Jewish clergy. She is not a rabbi or a cantor, but rather a Hebrew priestess, ordained in 2017 by the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute in Falls Village, Conn.
She is enthusiastic and sincere when describing Kesher: “We are post-denominational, noninstitutional/independent. We are priestess and peer-led, we are everyone-friendly, we are musical, magical and connective.”
On her website, Fife describes herself as “a community weaver, reclaiming ancient practices in ways that are resonant and relevant in the modern day.”
This is the first in a 10-part series,
exploring the data of the 2017 Greater
Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study
through the people it represents.
The search for contemporary resonance and relevancy may be what brings dozens of people to Fife’s monthly Shabbat gatherings and holiday services, those who are Jewish, as well as those who she says are “Jew-ish” — not necessarily identifying as Jews, but nonetheless connected to the Jewish community through friends or family.
Most of those who attend Kesher services, held typically in a room at Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside, see it as their primary worship community, forgoing membership at traditional brick-and-mortar synagogues.
The 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and conducted by researchers at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, found that about 35 percent of Jewish households in Greater Pittsburgh belong to a synagogue or “another Jewish worship community of some type.” While 19 percent of Jewish households in Greater Pittsburgh are dues-paying members of brick and mortar congregations, 17 percent choose alternative models of Jewish worship communities.
Many of these alternative communities exist somewhat under the radar, and would-be members need to know where to look to find them. Promotion of their services and events is often limited to Facebook posts or websites, but scores of Pittsburghers nonetheless have discovered them, preferring their flexibility and creativity to more conventional congregations.
These alternative communities include “High Holiday pop-ups, chavurot and independent minyanim,” said Matt Boxer, an assistant research professor at Brandeis, and one of the lead researchers for the Pittsburgh study.
In contrast to most brick and mortar congregations, dues are generally not required.
Kesher’s Shabbat service is “underpinned by Jewish values,” according to Fife, but looks very different from what one would find at most area congregations. Attendees and leaders of the service sit in a circle on cushions, with Fife playing the harmonium accompanied by several other musicians. At the center of the circle is “a beautiful fabric with sacred geometry painted on it,” Fife described. “In the middle are our candles, our challah, our wine, and other sacred objects that are resonant with the times.”
The sacred objects can change each month. For example, at Kesher’s November service, which followed the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue building, those objects included the front page of the issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that as its headline ran the first line of the Mourner’s Kaddish in Hebrew letters; the kriah ribbon Fife wore while she was marching with the activist group Bend the Arc in protest of President Donald Trump’s visit to Pittsburgh; a small Torah; a stone with the word “grieve” written on it; and “sacred threads that had come from my ordination day as a Hebrew priestess,” Fife said.
The Shabbat services, which attract between 35 and 60 people, include chanting and storytelling. Children are enthusiastically welcomed, and attendees are encouraged to dress in whatever makes them feel comfortable.
Shadyside resident Stephanie Weinstein grew up in Fox Chapel and attended services at Tree of Life Congregation in her youth. Now, she, her Hindu husband and her two young children look to Kesher as their primary place to worship Jewishly. They are not affiliated with a brick and mortar congregation.
“Our center of Jewish life is now Kesher,” said Weinstein. “They are very welcoming and accessible, and my husband feels comfortable and is interested and excited about going, which is important to me and my family.”
At Kesher, it “feels like we’re being Jewish in an informal setting,” Weinstein added, noting that as she and her husband are busy with full-time jobs and parenting, the flexibility of the group fits in better with their lifestyle than would a conventional congregation.
A place for empty-nesters
Finding that conventional congregations were “not meeting our needs,” Janet Seltman co-founded the independent minyan Makom HaLev about five years ago along with Rabbi Doris Dyen, an ordained Reconstructionist rabbi. The minyan meets once a month for Shabbat in people’s homes, and on holidays at various locations.
Noting that Makom HaLev draws heavily from the Jewish Renewal movement, its “goal is about making rituals meaningful for today,” Seltman said, adding that the services often include “alternative ways of praying, role-playing and dramatic presentations.”
Egalitarian and LGBTQ friendly, the community “empowers people to be involved and creative in the service,” said Seltman. And the intimacy of the group — typically no more than about 10 people on Shabbat — is “much harder to get at a big shul.”
“We know and greet everyone before the service, and everyone is engaged,” she said. “We are all really present.”
Seltman, 67, does not belong to a brick and mortar synagogue, although she did when her children were young.
“My spiritual needs now are being met at Makom HaLev,” she said.
When Susan Goldberg moved to Pittsburgh in 2009, “middle-aged, single and with no children,” she had no interest in joining a congregation at which she suspected she might feel “uncomfortable,” but she found community at Makom HaLev.
The lawyer turned psychologist turned professor appreciates the “freedom” the minyan provides, and that the group is “accepting of who you are and how you take up the religion,” she said. Recently, several younger people have joined the group, and she enjoys their energy as well.
Although Goldberg does not consider herself “particularly religious,” she does need “spirituality, but maybe on my own terms.”
The “part-time” aspect of Kehilla La La, founded by Rabbi Chuck Diamond, appeals to Mt. Lebanon resident Bobbi Gerson, a board member of that group and one of its original members.
“My husband and I are empty-nesters, and our kids are not in Pittsburgh, so we are out of town a lot for the holidays,” she said. “But we wanted to still be affiliated with a community.”
Gerson enjoys the monthly Kehilla La La Shabbat service at Diamond’s home, which attracts between 20 and 40 people — including young families, those who are middle-aged and those who are retired.
“We’re not people who go to synagogue every week, and once a month is more in line with the commitment we would typically make,” Gerson said.
Susan Forrest of Mt. Lebanon does not believe in God, and considers herself a secular humanist. Yet, because she still craves gathering with other Jews, she helped establish the Pittsburgh Secular Jewish Community, which meets monthly for discussions and socializing at Panera Bread on Centre Avenue, and at people’s homes for the holidays.
The monthly meetings draw about 10 people, and about two dozen gather to mark Passover and Chanukah.
Mostly in their late 40s to mid 70s, the group is not large, but “we have a blast together,” Forrest said. “It’s been five and half years, and it’s like a family now.”
Her need to be connected to a Jewish community is satisfied by PSJC “as well or better than a synagogue would,” Forrest said, adding that the congregation she belonged to in the past as an adult had her feeling as if she didn’t “fit in.”
“I felt it was cliquey,” she said. “I don’t miss that so much.”
Connecting through music
Monthly Shabbat services are offered by Chavurat Shirah, a group which features “chant, Torah, song, poetry and intentional prayer in a community of seekers,” according to the description on its Facebook page.
Co-led by Cantor Julie Newman, Sara Stock Mayo, David Goldstein and Shara Taylor, Chavurat Shirah is designed to augment spiritual practice for area Jews, and not to replace brick-and-mortar congregations.
Deb Taylor, who also is a member of Temple Ohav Shalom in the North Hills, has been coming to Chavurat Shirah since its inception.
“I love the music, that’s probably the main reason I go,” she said. “I like that it is a blend of traditional and contemporary music, and I like the diverse community that attends and participates. It allows a little bit more creativity, and it allows for the exploration of spiritual growth in a different way.”
For the past year and a half, the group has been meeting at Rodef Shalom one Friday night each month, with music being the centerpiece of the service. About 30 to 40 people typically attend.
“We develop each service around a theme,” said Mayo, noting that the applicable Torah portion is incorporated into that theme, and that Chavurat Shirah often uses “bibliodrama, yoga and other creative ways to engage.”
Chavurat Shirah is a project of Tiferet, a nonprofit established by Newman in 2017 “to add bandwidth to Jewish life and experiences in Pittsburgh, but with a particular focus on contemplative practices,” said Newman. “So, that’s Jewish mindfulness, meditation, yoga, Mussar — all reflective practices to strengthen the inner life of individuals, but aimed at supporting our ability to do good in the world and to achieve happier and more meaningful lives.”
Brick and mortar congregations, Newman explained, “may not have the bandwidth to do this stuff. As they are getting ready to do something like this, they are called to do a life-cycle event. It’s out of their hands. I don’t want to say they don’t address it, but it’s really useful to have an organization that’s focused on it.”
The majority of those who attend the monthly Chavurat Shirah services are over 45, Newman said, although the group does draw some younger people as well.
“We really want to work with synagogues,” Newman said. “I don’t want synagogues to feel defensive, like we are going to be siphoning off people or something like that. We really want to work with what exists in the Jewish community now. But we are also reaching out to people who are not synagogue-goers.”
Finding community at Chabad
Those who attend programs at Chabad are included in the 17 percent of Jewish Pittsburghers who identified as members of a worship community outside of conventional “brick and mortar” congregations, according to Brandeis’s Boxer.
The rubric used by the Community Study researchers was “complicated,” he said, noting that although most Chabads do have buildings, “they structure things a little differently.”
Three percent of all Jewish households in Greater Pittsburgh said they were members of Chabad, according to Boxer.
Nonna Neft, of Upper St. Clair, and her family have been attending events at Chabad of the South Hills for about 11 years. Although they previously belonged to another congregation, they dropped that membership when their children expressed a preference for attending Hebrew school at Chabad.
After attending a High Holiday service at Chabad, the Nefts began regularly attending Shabbat services with that community as well.
“I just felt it was very haimish,” said Neft. “I felt it was warm and I felt welcome.”
She also has felt a deep connection to Rabbi Mendy Rosenblum, spiritual leader of Chabad of the South Hills, as well as other attendees of the services there.
Although she is not Lubavitch, “over time I began to see the beauty in the very traditional Jewish practice,” Neft said.
She does not miss being part of a larger congregation, and sees several advantages of being part of the smaller South Hills Chabad community: deep friendships and a close relationship to the rabbi.
While no dues are required at Chabad of the South Hills, that was not a factor in choosing Chabad over a more conventional synagogue, Neft said.
“The money that we pledged and paid to our Chabad, and other Chabads that we support, add up to a number that is so much higher than any dues structure at any modern-day synagogue,” she said. “And that’s not because anybody asks; we are choosing to do it.”
Neft stressed that her family did not leave the congregation it previously was affiliated with “in anger.”
“We just found something that spoke to us,” she said. “I have good memories from being part of the [former] congregation. But I’m happy where I am.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at
This is the first in a 10-part series, exploring the data of the 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study through the people it represents.