Things are looking up at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, according to the congregation’s president, Michael Eisenberg.
Despite the shrinking membership, budget issues and other challenges faced by so many congregations in Pittsburgh and across the country, Eisenberg said he is “optimistic” that the future of TOL*OLS will be bright.
The congregation, he said, has been engaged in “unprecedented dialogues” with other Jewish institutions, actively looking for a way to collaborate and resolve the common problem of “oversized, underutilized” buildings. Those talks, Eisenberg said in a letter last month to his congregants, “have begun to bear fruit.”
“Things have been happening,” Eisenberg said in an interview. TOL*OLS is now in talks with other congregations about sharing space within the building at Wilkins and Shady Avenues, hoping to create a “metropolitan” synagogue model. The congregation has also begun talks with Chatham University, which may be interested in utilizing classrooms and other spaces within the building on weekdays.
TOL*OLS is one of several Jewish institutions that have been engaged in a dialogue facilitated by Larry Rubin, who was hired as a consultant for that purpose by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, following a facilities study commissioned by the Federation in 2013 that showed an abundance of underutilized space in buildings owned by Jewish institutions in Pittsburgh.
One outcome of the facilities study, Eisenberg said, was the finding that the Jewish Association on Aging needed additional space to create independent senior living facilities and that TOL*OLS might be able to fill that need on its property. Last summer, the JAA and TOL*OLS entered into a six-month exclusive letter of intent, during which time the JAA was to conduct feasibility studies.
The letter of intent expired at the end of February 2017 with no offer coming from the JAA, leaving TOL*OLS free to explore options with other institutions.
Deborah Winn-Horvitz, president and CEO of the JAA, commented in an email that the JAA “is still considering some type of collaboration with TOL, but we are also evaluating other location options for a senior independent living project.”
TOL*OLS is now actively pursuing an arrangement with Chatham University. Eisenberg met with David Finegold, president of Chatham, last week to discuss a possible collaboration.
“We had a very productive discussion with Michael [Eisenberg] and his colleagues today and are exploring multiple ways we might work more closely together,” Finegold wrote in an email to the Chronicle on April 5.
“Tree of Life is an ideal potential partner because of their very close proximity to Chatham’s Shadyside campus,” Finegold said. “With the rapid growth we’re experiencing since we went co-ed, we are exploring a range of options to meet our space needs.”
“It was a good first meeting,” echoed Eisenberg. “Now, we are looking to the next steps.”
Possible uses for of the synagogue space for Chatham could include utilizing its classrooms for the university’s early childhood development program and using TOL*OLS’s large sanctuary as a space for convocations, according to Eisenberg.
Eisenberg has also been talking to other area congregations, hoping to get three or four under his synagogue’s roof to create a metropolitan model, in which each congregation maintains its own identity, but shares operating costs.
The synagogue which houses TOL*OLS already is home to a second congregation, Dor Hadash, which moved to that location about seven years ago. Whether Dor Hadash would remain in the TOL*OLS building and join a metropolitan model is unclear at this point; the congregation’s leadership declined to speak on the record for this article.
Eisenberg also has been in discussions with New Light Congregation, a Conservative synagogue on Beechwood Boulevard, about moving into the building.
“We have been struggling as most shuls are in the East End,” said Stephen Cohen, co-president of New Light. “Our membership is declining. Young people are not joining shuls.”
The concept of the metropolitan synagogue model “makes a lot of sense,” Cohen said.
But, Cohen cautioned, “there are a number of issues that need to be worked out, and we need to decide as a congregation that this is definitively what we want to do. We’re in discussions. Sometimes discussions go well, and sometimes they don’t. But this seems like it could be a viable feasible way of ensuring the future of the congregation.”
If New Light makes the move to the building on Wilkins and Shady, Cohen said, it would have its own dedicated sanctuary, its own office and its own rabbi.
“We’re not talking mergers,” he said.
“It’s time to face reality,” stressed Rubin, the Federation consultant who has been facilitating talks among seven congregations — TOL*OLS, Dor Hadash, New Light, Beth Shalom, Temple Sinai, Rodef Shalom and Young Peoples.
But not all of those institutions “are ready or feel the need to collaborate,” Rubin said.
A metropolitan model with three or four congregations under one roof could allow for some shared programming and broader community engagement with the building becoming a “cultural center getting the community involved,” Rubin said. “There would be a feeling of unity and at the same time, separate identities among the congregations.”
While Beth Shalom is not considering a move to the TOL*OLS building, it is nonetheless looking for ways to collaborate with other congregations, said David Horvitz, president of Beth Shalom. “Right now, we’re not even in the discussion phase; it’s a twinkle in the eye. But it would be foolish for people to sit with their eyes closed.”
TOL*OLS is also proceeding with its search for a new rabbi, as its current spiritual leader, Rabbi Chuck Diamond, will be leaving his position at the end of June. The Rabbinical Steering Committee has narrowed its search to “three excellent candidates,” according to Eisenberg.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.