One thing was certain after last week’s South Hills panel discussion among Jewish community leaders dubbed “Where Do We Go from Here?” — there is not yet a consensus on how to figure that out.
The May 30 program, held at the South Hills Jewish Community Center and co-sponsored by South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh (SHJP) and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, was billed as a continuation of a conversation that began in February regarding the recently released Jewish Community Study. The $325,000 study was conducted by the Marilyn and Maurice Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute and was funded by the Federation’s Jewish Community Foundation.
Last week’s panel, whose task was to go beyond the hard data and discuss how best to use it to propel the South Hills Jewish community forward, featured Rabbi Danny Schiff, Foundation Scholar; Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of the JCC; Raimy Rubin, manager of the Pittsburgh Jewish Community Scorecard; Jonathan Fischer, vice chair of SHJP; Stacey Reibach, board member of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills; and David Weisberg, president of Temple Emanuel of South Hills.
Schiff began the session by acknowledging that while the study showed a 17 percent increase in Pittsburgh’s Jewish population in the last 15 years, “there are real issues we have to address.”
Cautioning that his forthcoming words would be “controversial,” he also stressed that they represented his own perspectives and that the Federation did not necessarily either support or oppose his views.
Schiff quickly dove into a topic that affects almost all of the non-Orthodox world in some way or another: intermarriage.
“Here we are, discussing the Jewish future, and there is clear data on the impact of intermarriage on the Jewish future in this material, and we shouldn’t ignore it,” he stressed.
Schiff pointed to the study’s findings that while 99 percent of Pittsburgh Jews who are married to other Jews are raising their children either “Jewish by religion” (86 percent) or as secular or cultural Jews (13 percent), only 10 percent of Jews who are married to a non-Jew are raising their children as “Jewish by religion.” And only 23 percent of intermarried households are attempting to raise their children as secularly or culturally Jewish.
The significance of these findings is obvious, according to Schiff.
“We can gloss over it, and we can ignore it and we can not talk about it, but if you’re going to ask a question about the Jewish future and wonder what’s best to ensure the Jewish future — and someone tells you that you have a three times greater chance to raise Jewish children if you are in-married — it’s hard to ignore. The reality is that marriage choices make a big difference in the Jewish future.”
“But here’s my question,” he continued. “Can you be simultaneously welcoming to those who are intermarried and at the same time, make the case that in-marriage is best for the Jewish future?”
A national study conducted by Sylvia Barack Fishman of Brandeis University and Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College, analyzing data published in the 2013 Pew survey of American Jewry, supports the data in the Pittsburgh study regarding intermarriage: “Hardly any children (17 percent) of mixed marriages marry Jews and an almost equally small number (21 percent) raise their children as Jews,” according to the authors.
Reibach presented a different perspective on how the community should think of intermarriage, based on her personal experiences and anecdotal evidence.
Beth El, she said, “embraces the reality of intermarriage. They make the non-Jewish spouse feel welcome without sacrificing Jewish practice.”
Reibach explained that although she was not born Jewish, the warmth and acceptance of a congregation in Colorado “led me to decide to raise my children Jewish and ultimately convert.”
The community need not “be scared of intermarriage,” she said. “It’s happening no matter what. And it doesn’t always end so badly for the Jewish people. Being exclusive and turning your back won’t work.”
Another important data point coming out of Pittsburgh’s study, Schiff said, was the significant drop in non-Orthodox congregational affiliation in the last 15 years, down from 73 percent to just 56 percent, with indications that the decline will continue.
“The Reform and Conservative movements are dying,” he said, “and they won’t be around to see the next century. What are synagogues supposed to do?”
Schiff suggested that rather than focus on growing membership, congregational boards should instead work on securing their institutions as “places that are serious and focused on the mission they’re set up to perform and spreading Jewish practice, and to ensure Jewish practice is something that becomes more widespread.”
Jonathan Fischer, 31 and recently engaged, said that he has yet to find such an institution in the South Hills.
“I don’t belong to a synagogue, but I do feel immersed,” he said, referring to the study’s categorization of five types of Jews in Pittsburgh, with “immersed” being the most Jewishly involved. “I worry about this community. I’m being constantly told to go to Squirrel Hill to be with my peers and raise a Jewish family. I don’t want to feel that way. I challenge the synagogues in the South Hills to try to recruit me. I need to feel I have a home here and that I can adequately raise a Jewish family in the South Hills.”
Noting that he represents “a younger demographic,” Fischer said he invites “the community to think about ways to keep your kids and grandkids in the South Hills. I have a lot more fun with my friends in Squirrel Hill than I do here.”
The researchers did not categorize community members based on denomination, but instead on five categories of engagement: immersed, connected, involved, holiday and minimally. Schiff argued that while Jewish institutions tend to focus on outreach efforts and funding programs geared to those who are minimally engaged Jewishly, that is not the most effective strategy to ensure a vibrant Jewish future.
“I suggest that if we are serious about this Jewish future, Judaism has always been maintained by a tiny minority, a saving remnant,” he said.
The study showed that only about 27 percent of the South Hills Jewish community is either immersed or connected, and therefore “serious and engaged about their Judaism,” Schiff noted.
“That’s the group that’s going to take us forward,” he said. “Eighty percent of the focus should be going there, but now the thinking is the opposite. The data and Jewish history suggests that is wrong. In synagogues and organizations and federations, we should be focusing on the core, and less on the periphery. And if the core is really good, it will be a magnet for some. The core is where our Jewish future lies.”
Rubin, who staffed the community study, reported that its “main purpose” is to “drive action in the community and be good stewards of the philanthropic dollars that come in.”
He suggested that the “organized Jewish community” needs to provide “higher level programming” to reach millennials, and that the money spent on that cohort is “working.”
Schreiber, citing statistics showing the low level of Jewish immersion and connection in the South Hills, said he sees an opportunity for the people less involved to “have Jewish journeys.”
Temple Emanuel’s president, Weisberg, said his congregation is “positioned for the future” and, in light of its longtime rabbi Mark Mahler’s upcoming retirement, has been having parlor meetings and distributing surveys to its members to “look at who we are as a congregation.”
With declining numbers, the congregation is “looking to attract new members” while thinking “about why people want to join. The ‘why’ is important,” he said.
In a lengthy question and answer session, many in the audience of 100 people expressed their opinions on what should be the South Hills Jewish community’s next steps. Some argued for inter-organizational cooperation, while others advocated for more serious Jewish programming in the South Hills, which now is home to 20 percent of Jewish households in Greater Pittsburgh. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.