Last week President Barack Obama delivered his farewell address, and this week Donald Trump will be sworn in as president. Though strong opinions about both men divide our community, Obama said something on which, I believe, we can all agree. Governmental outcomes depend on our individual participation and on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship. If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and get moving. This is an admonition that Pittsburghers should well consider.
Since retiring as president/CEO of Jewish Federations of North America six years ago, leaving New York City to return to the two communities that are close to my heart — my hometown, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, where I spent nearly 25 years as president/CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh — working as an active citizen is what I chose to do.
In Chicago, the road was obvious. We live in West Rogers Park, the last full-fledged Jewish neighborhood in the city with a large and growing Orthodox population and soaring Jewish investments evident in new homes, day schools, synagogues and Federation agencies. Meanwhile, demographic shifts in recent decades have made WRP one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city; in part as a result, our commercial streets and some public spaces deteriorated.
The obvious disconnect between a thriving community in a challenged urban neighborhood didn’t bode well in a city with an entrenched history of Jewish flight. So four years ago, I undertook the relaunch of a then-moribund organization, the Jewish Community Council of West Rogers Park, of which I now serve as volunteer president, with my wife, Beverly Siegel, volunteering her expertise in communications. Our mission: to preserve the Jewish community by strengthening the neighborhood as a whole.
Financial support comes from our board and an ongoing grant from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. With a young, dynamic executive director and committed volunteers, we’ve made dramatic strides. Our advocacy to date has galvanized a diverse group of residents and has resulted in a new city park that will beautify a blighted and abandoned three-acre commercial site; a new WRP branch of the Chicago Public Library; two new Jewish-owned businesses in formerly vacant storefronts, and attractive new signage on existing stores.
Back in Squirrel Hill, my path was not so clear. The commercial streets are mostly occupied. Our parks and library are excellent. But our housing prices are higher than the suburbs, and the housing stock and public schools are inferior. Orthodox Jews don’t rely heavily on public schools, but they account for only a small proportion of the Jews in the neighborhood. It became evident to me that to keep young Jewish families in Squirrel Hill and its environs, we need to focus on improving the public schools and enhancing the urban-living proposition. If we don’t, we run the risk of slowly losing our core community, and that would pose an onerous burden on communal resources. The bulk of Pittsburgh’s Jewish institutional presence is located here, and replicating it elsewhere would be virtually impossible.
I couldn’t have imagined a few years ago that the answer to how I might make a difference in Pittsburgh would come through a visionary initiative of Nextgen:Pgh, an organization started by my son, Alec Rieger. While I love NGP’s popular lifestyle innovations in Squirrel Hill — a weekly seasonal farmers market, night markets, the first-ever Asian lunar new year festival, a community Purim celebration and a soundstage at the entrance to the Carnegie Library — they were doing just fine without me.
Public school enhancement: That is where I wanted to dig in. And now, NGP, in partnership with Seth Hufford of The People Group, are poised to test an exciting program designed to stimulate creative, entrepreneurial thinking. This fall, they will launch iLab, Pennsylvania’s first social venture incubator for teens, with 20 fellows selected from the Pittsburgh Public Schools. While the pilot will extend beyond Allderdice students, the model can serve as a template for future application in any school, including right here. Working with accomplished individuals in fields the teens themselves choose, in cooperation with leading-edge organizations, iLab will help participants think about and develop their own meaningful work projects. This customized mentoring will provide to city students extraordinary realworld experience and, likely, career boosts.
The iLab proposal just received a $50,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments, one of the most respected foundations in Pittsburgh. I see my role as leveraging the Heinz grant in order to complete the funding and launch the pilot.
Every day we read about the seemingly unbridgeable divides in our country. What better way to bring us closer together than to find one’s own way to work with other like-minded individuals to make a difference. I believe I’ve found my way. I hope you’ll be inspired to find yours.
Howard M. Rieger served as president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh from 1981 to 2004.