For the past 10 years, Rabbi Moshe Russell has served as spiritual leader of Gemilas Chesed Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation in White Oak, about 16 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. A Chicago native, Russell spent 10 years studying at a yeshiva in Israel before heading to Western Pennsylvania to lead a congregation that was already facing the challenges of an aging and declining membership.
Despite efforts to recruit Orthodox families to White Oak during his tenure, only about 50 members remain at Gemilas Chesed.
Russell will leave the community later this month to assume the position of executive director at the Veitzener Kollel in Chicago. Prior to his departure, Russell sat down with the Chronicle to reflect on his time here.
How did your rabbinate at Gemilas Chesed change from when you first came?
It changed drastically. It took years and years to learn how to deal with people, how to relate to people, how to connect with people. It’s something you cannot do without practicing. You make mistakes. There were many challenges, dealing with different people and how to relate to them — the troublemakers. You are always learning, practicing on the job or training on the job.
In 10 years, did Gemilas Chesed’s numbers decline?
They declined. Over the years, families came and families went but there was never a great influx of people, which would be the one way to save the community other than having a yeshiva program run in the building, having the building be used.
Is there a future for the Jewish community in White Oak if they can’t bring a yeshiva there?
What were some of the big challenges you faced over the last 10 years?
One of the challenges working in a congregation that is so small is that personality issues become amplified. In a big community, you have all these people, but you have so many other people and that kind of covers it.
It’s an older community, and many members end up in the hospital at some point or another, or confined to home, and we were really able to build a relationship with many of the individuals. They feel a very close relationship. We hope to keep those relationships as much as possible. It was a very good experience for myself and the family, but it was a little hard living somewhat isolated from the rest of the community.
What was that like for you and for your kids, being separated from the larger Orthodox community in Squirrel Hill?
It was difficult because they didn’t have friends to go to, everything was in Squirrel Hill. So that was a little challenging, having to drive into Squirrel Hill, sometimes going to minyan two or three times a day because as the years went on we were less for a minyan, so I would come to Squirrel Hill sometimes three times a day.
Did you feel you had a good relationship with the rabbis in Squirrel Hill, that you were part of the rabbinic community there even though you were in White Oak?
To some extent. To some extent I had a relationship with each one as an individual, not as the Vaad, per se, but each one of them, whether it was coming out to Rabbi (Daniel) Wasserman for funerals, or to Rabbi (Shimon) Silver for guidance for the (Gemilas Chesed) community — he will continue to be the halachic guide for the community. There is not much left there, but for what is there.
Why are you leaving White Oak?
The community decreased over time, and it was really time for us to look for a new opportunity.
What are some of the challenges you see the wider Pittsburgh Jewish community facing?
The problem they are facing is the numbers. They really need to figure out a way to attract more people to Pittsburgh if they want it to grow. I am specifically talking about the religious community in Squirrel Hill. They have to be more proactive, whether it is a committee to look out for jobs for people, or a committee to go to other cities and just let people know they exist and bring more people here. Pittsburgh is a very, very nice place. The cost of living is not that expensive.
Besides the cost of living, what are some of the other amenities for Orthodox Jews here that should be attracting more people?
You’ve got the kosher stores, you’ve got the pizza shop, a new bagel shop, a new restaurant that opened up. So things are happening here, it’s just got to be more proactive. That’s what I think would help them.
You still have family in Chicago.
Five out of seven brothers will be living in Chicago. We are 13 siblings all together, keinehora, and my parents still live in Chicago. It should be really nice for my kids, they’ve got a lot of cousins.
What will you miss most about White Oak?
It’s definitely the people. I talked to Rabbi (Yisroel) Miller (formerly of Congregation Poale Zedeck) before I came here, and he told me that when you start with a community, it’s very important you make a relationship with people — maybe five or six individuals — who will be your supporters and to make a study session with them. That’s what I did. It was four people, and those people are the ones I have the closest relationship with. Even though we only studied for two or three years, those individuals I have the best relationship with.
What will you miss most about Pittsburgh?
The Kollel is a very nice place to hang out. I spent a lot of time at the Kollel, and I will definitely miss it, that’s for sure. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at