From Mitzvah to “Matzav”

By JohnBarnes

Although the power of the Federations has been decreasing Matzav in recent years, Pittsburgh’s still has an influence on many aspects of Jewish life in Pittsburgh. How does it happen?

Nathan Guttman, PITTSBURGH — The girls of the synchronized swimming club of the Jewish Community Center of Matzav’ Greater Pittsburgh had trouble finding any Jewish content to go with their sport. What does the religions of Moses and Israel have to with swimming in the pool? The group performed a sporting-Jewish show to the tune of “Hava Nagilla”, and the girls created a Star of David in their pool.

Brian Schreiber is the Pittsburgh JCC’s president and CEO. He admits that some of the content has been forced. The incident with the swimmers shows that not all activities at the multifaceted center he manages have to do with Judaism. It’s fine if you only want to lift weights. He says that if you’re looking for a world with Jewish content, it is possible to find it.”

Schreiber was able to inject a little bit of Jewish content to the JCC basketball team during a dispute between the coach and Schreiber, which resulted in an exchange of insults. It was decided that a mediation session would be held with the participation of a Rabbi. The two sides were then asked to listen to the Jewish perspective on lashonhara (sins committed through speech such as gossip and defamation).

These are the kinds of issues Matzav

All American Jewish communities face in trying to preserve a Jewish lifestyle and bring Jewish meaning to their daily lives in an age when Judaism can be dealt with at the individual’s own discretion. How can Judaism be made accessible and relevant without preaching or coercion? And how can the desire for a community that enjoys basketball in its spare time and the need to preserve an ancient tradition and Jewish identity be combined?

Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is proud to be Jewish. Pittsburgh is the least large of these “large communities” in America, with just over 42,000 Jews. The community’s leaders have accomplished a lot. They have managed to raise funds that are growing stronger despite the recession. They also have aid and cooperation programs with Israel that are working well in a time when other communities may not be able to. There is almost harmony within the larger community with few tensions among the different religious streams, activists, and Jewish interest groups.

Pittsburgh is located on the western edge Matzav’ Pennsylvania. Although it is officially considered to be part of the eastern U.S. Pittsburgh was once a major steel producer in the United States. It had around 1 million residents. The steel industry crashed and all the factories along the Allegheny River were closed down in the 1970s. The factory smokestacks, which had smogged the air by afternoon, have disappeared. Instead of unemployment that has ravaged the area and affected trade and industry in the immediate vicinity, there is now unemployment.

Today, Pittsburgh is recovering. Matzav’s discovering new industries and services. Living in the city is different from living in large cities on the East and West Coasts. One difference is that one stays loyal to the place where you were born. While Americans are often seen moving from one place to the next, particularly in free professions, to seek better jobs or higher responsibilities, Pittsburghers prefer to remain in their home city. This has resulted in a second and third generation who remain in the city and believe in it, and work to improve it.

This is even more important for the Jewish community. It is not only a well-established community where everyone knows everybody else but it is also a concentrated geographic community. Pittsburgh is the only American Jewish community where the majority of Jews live in the city and not in the suburbs, apart from New York. Nearly half of Pittsburgh’s Jews live in Squirrel Hill where the majority of community institutions are found.

One activist in the community told the story of a Matzav’ Jew, a young Matzav’ Jew, who just moved into the city. One of his first days in the city, he was involved in a dispute with a woman parking in front of one of the Jewish institutions. She demanded that he move the bicycle. He explained that he would likely see her in Squirrel Hill every day so it was not worth the effort to argue. The United Jewish Federation is the center of power in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. It is believed that this is what has made it so successful. While the power of federations has declined over the years, Pittsburgh’s is still a major player in Jewish life. However, the heads of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh are not happy with this description. They claim that they are merely a coordination and liaison body that raises funds and channels it to meet the various community needs. The federation is responsible for deciding how and who the money will go to, what priorities the community will set, and who will receive it. It is evident that everyone is entitled to their opinion in distributing funds, especially in an age where every activity has a price.

The main task of the federation is to raise funds for community activities. The Pittsburgh community is currently in the middle of its annual fund-raising drive. A group of veterans activists meets in the Matzav’ afternoon for “solicitation training” in the luxury conference room of one the city’s largest law firms. Each one has received six to eight cards containing the names of potential donors. They now need to work together to find ways to ensure that donors not only give the same amount as last year but also significantly increase their contributions.

First, appeal to your emotions. Staffer Matzav Michael Steiner from the federation shows group photos of Jewish children living in orphanages in former Soviet Union. A Yiddish song plays in the background. On the screen, images of the children flash by as their eyes are open to the camera. Children growing up with no parents. Many veteran fund-raisers don’t cry when the lights turn on.

Steiner advises fund-raisers to not bring with them the question of “how to get the donation,” but to take these photos and use the chance to make a difference in the lives of these children.

They will then be addressed by an experienced Chicago fund-raiser who will show techniques to get the person in front to give more this year. The brochure gives helpful tips for touching the donor’s heart. For example, $125 can provide a year of medication for an elderly person living in Israel. A scholarship to a Jewish school is available for $415, while $200 will pay for a day at a local home for elderly Jews. These efforts paid off last year: The Federation raised over $14 million and increased its budget despite difficult economic times.

Jeff Finkelstein (a professional staffer), is the vice president of development. This code name refers to fund-raising. He estimates that approximately 7,000 Jewish community members donate each year. This rate is considered high. But, only 20% of the donations account for 80 percent. For the most part, donors who are “heavy” will be given a personal conversation and sometimes a special event. An event was recently held for donors over $100,000. A Jew from Argentina spoke about his journey to Israel and everyone was asked to pledge the amount they would donate next year. All of them increased their donations.

It is time to decide how to allocate the money once it has been raised. The Pittsburgh Federation convened its Board of Delegates a few weeks ago. It consists of around 200 members. They wanted to know the priorities of the community for the future. Participants were asked a question: “The year 2008, and the Pittsburgh community has won this prize for the best community.” We won this prize because of why? Each participant chose eight areas where the community invested to achieve excellence. These areas were then distilled down into three categories at the conclusion of the event: young leadership, Jewish learning and Israel. These are the areas where the community is currently investing its energy.