Andrew Carnegie once famously said, “Pittsburgh entered the core of my heart when I was a boy and cannot be torn out.” Rabbi Jonathan Berkun shared that feeling as he reflected on the eight years he spent living in Squirrel Hill.
“The whole city was filled with such friendly, warm, gracious people that it was a pleasure to be living in Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh,” he said. “It was a very warm and hospitable community. Many of those qualities left a lasting impression on me and remain with me until today. The foundation values of kindness, passion, concern — those are part of the Pittsburgh Jewish culture.”
Those values are also clearly foundational to the Berkun family, which has been dedicated to service for three generations.
Berkun has served as a rabbi at Aventura Turberry Jewish Center since 2007. His father, Rabbi Alvin Berkun, is the rabbi emeritus at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha. And his son, Jeremy, is a member of HaZamir Miami. Jeremy recently returned to the city for a special free concert on May 19 at Temple Sinai, singing with 20 chapters of HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir to express solidarity with the city of Pittsburgh.
“This last Pittsburgh trip was one of the most emotional of my entire life,” Jeremy said. “I can’t express what it was like to see all the people that came to the concert. It means a lot to me and my family that I was able to go and support the city through music and love.”
“It was bittersweet,” recalled Rabbi Alvin Berkun, as he thought about watching his grandson perform in the concert. “I’m very proud of my grandson. It brought back memories of Tree of Life, because I served as their rabbi for over 30 years. That’s the shul I davened in every Shabbos morning. I was literally on my way to services that October morning (when the Tree of Life shooting took place), but my wife called and said she didn’t feel well and asked if I could stay home. I did, and everyone who sat next to me in shul — I officiated at their [funeral] services the following week. My son, Jonathan, assisted me in these funerals because he knew all the congregants.”
The elder Berkun thinks that Tree of Life played a part in his son working with youth groups and becoming a rabbi. “He was encouraged to play guitar at the end of Yom Kippur when he was just a teenager. From that perspective, it was great because it gave him a way of using prayer and his guitar skills and ultimately led him to be very comfortable working with the youth group and things like that.”
His son, who has two sisters who no longer live in Pittsburgh, recalls with fondness his time at the synagogue: “It was beautiful. It was an enchanted life, Jewishly and personally and communally. I was the only son of my father. As the son of the rabbi, I felt very special all the time.”
Like any family with Pittsburgh roots, talk quickly turns to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Alvin Berkun remembers being given tickets to a game after moving to the city. His son told some people that they were going to the stadium and the rabbi recalls, “people were amazed that we were able to get tickets after just moving to Pittsburgh.”
Attending games became a tradition for father and son. Jonathan recounts, “My father was always attracting tickets to home games. He and I attended virtually all of them from the time we moved to Pittsburgh when I was 10 to the time I left for college at 18. Those are the warmest memories I have, not only of the city but also of quality time with my father.”
Despite living in Florida, Jeremy has continued to root for the team, saying, “I am a very, very big Steelers fan; almost bigger than my father.” And he remembers well what makes Pittsburgh such a special place, “from the way people drive to the way people greet each other to the way people show concern for one another, the ways in which the community comes together in times of celebration and times of sorrow. It’s not a small town but it has a very small-town feel. From passion for local sports to issues of concern for the Jewish community to connecting to Israel, it’s just a beautiful place.” pjc
David Rullo can be reached a drullo@