Who are the Downtown Jews?
No matter how spacious and beautiful the new Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob synagogue, currently under construction Downtown, will be, there are still those in the community who say it shouldn’t be built.
They argue that it’s a waste of money for such a small congregation — one that often struggles to make minyans — and that, in times of financial distress like these, those funds could be put to more productive use.
The members of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob have every right — legally, and morally — to build that synagogue, however small their congregation is. Just like other Pittsburgh congregations that are proud of their heritage, BHH-BJ wants to survive. Only the members can say when it is time to close the doors for good.
Besides, BHH-BJ says it has a mission: to serve the Downtown Jewish community. That includes Jews who only work there and Jews who may move there as Downtown morphs into a stylish residential neighborhood.
That’s what we really want to talk about. Who are these new Downtown Jews? How many are there? What are their needs?
The unsatisfying answer to all three questions is, we just don’t know. There is no demographic data for Downtown in the 2002 Community Survey, and while many of us may know of this person or that couple who just bought into one of the many new condos under construction, are they enough to justify the community’s interest?
At a minimum, we think it’s worth studying. If a new Jewish community is developing Downtown, then it behooves Jewish Pittsburgh to serve it.
But if Downtown Jews are there, what kind are they? Again, no hard data exists, but we think it’s safe to say they’re probably not Orthodox. The Orthodox community generally stays in Squirrel Hill where its schools, shuls, stores and social networks are located. That’s understandable.
So this is the question BHH-BJ must wrestle with: How does a small Orthodox congregation reach out to Jews who likely are not Orthodox? Maybe they’re Reform or Conservative. Maybe they’re only culturally Jewish and not interested in religion.
That is the challenge BHH-BJ faces, and how they face it is up to them. If they do take it on, the organized Jewish community should support them in the effort. If they don’t, it could be a missed opportunity.