By Howard Rieger
Our country has prided itself on the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to another and what transpired on January 20 was no exception. On the other hand, the divided opinions about the last President and the current one is most often a source of conflict rather than an open dialog aimed at bridging differences and coming to a more constructive common ground. While some are taking to the streets to express their concerns, governmental outcomes also depend on our individual participation and on each of doing something in addition to speaking out.
Since retiring as President/CEO of Jewish Federations of North America six years ago, leaving New York City to return to the two communities that are close to my heart – my hometown, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, where I spent nearly 25 years as Federation President/CEO of the Jewish Federation – working as an active citizen is what I chose to do.
In Chicago, the road was obvious. We live in West Rogers Park, the last full-fledged Jewish neighborhood in the city with a large and growing Orthodox population and soaring Jewish investments evident in new homes, day schools, synagogues, and federation agencies. Meanwhile, demographic shifts in recent decades have made WRP one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city; in part as a result, our commercial streets and some public spaces deteriorated. The obvious disconnect between a thriving community in a challenged urban neighborhood didn’t bode well in a city with an entrenched history of Jewish flight. So four years ago, I undertook the re-launch of a then-moribund organization, the Jewish Community Council of West Rogers Park, of which I now serve as volunteer president, with my wife, Beverly Siegel, volunteering her expertise in communications. Our mission: to preserve the Jewish community by strengthening the neighborhood as a whole.
Financial support comes from our board and an ongoing grant from Chicago’s Jewish Federation. With a young, dynamic executive director and committed volunteers, we’ve made dramatic strides. Our advocacy to date has galvanized a diverse group of residents and has resulted in a new city park that will beautify a blighted and abandoned three-acre commercial site; a new WRP branch of the Chicago Public Library; two new Jewish-owned businesses in formerly vacant storefronts, and attractive new signage on existing stores.
Back in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, my path was not so clear. The commercial streets are mostly occupied. Our parks and library are excellent. But our housing prices are much higher than the suburbs, and the housing stock and public schools are inferior. Orthodox Jews don’t rely heavily on public schools, but they account for only a small proportion of the Jews in the neighborhood. It became evident to me that to keep young Jewish families in Squirrel Hill and its environs, we needed to focus on improving the public schools and enhancing the urban-living proposition. If we don’t, we run the risk of slowly losing our core community, and that would pose an onerous burden on communal resources. The bulk of Pittsburgh’s Jewish institutional presence, rebuilt in the mid-1990s is located there, and replicating it elsewhere would be virtually impossible.
I couldn’t have imagined a few years ago that the answer to how I might make a difference in Pittsburgh would come through a visionary initiative of Nextgen:Pgh, an organization started by my son, Alec Rieger. While I love NGP’s popular lifestyle innovations in Squirrel Hill – a weekly seasonal farmers market, night markets, the first-ever Asian lunar new year festival, a community Purim celebration, and a soundstage at the entrance to the local Carnegie Library – they were doing just fine without me.
Public school enhancement: that is where I wanted to dig in. And now, NGP in partnership with The People Group, a Pittsburgh-based leadership development and policy advocacy organization are poised to test an exciting program designed to stimulate creative, entrepreneurial thinking. This fall, they will launch iLab, Pennsylvania’s first social-venture incubator for teens, with 20 fellows selected from the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Working with accomplished individuals in fields the teens themselves choose, in cooperation with leading-edge organizations, iLab will help participants think about and develop their own meaningful work projects. This customized mentoring will provide to city students extraordinary real-world experience and, likely, career boosts.
The iLab proposal just received a $50,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments, one of the most respected foundations in Pittsburgh and nationally. I see my role as leveraging the Heinz grant in order to complete the funding, help to recruit mentors and launch the pilot.
Every day we read about the seemingly unbridgeable divides in our country. What better way to bring us closer together than to find one’s own way to work with other like-minded individuals to make a difference. And for those of us not constrained by the day-to-day responsibilities of a job with its concomitant organizational mission, retirement is in my opinion the ideal time to do this.
Howard M Rieger was President/CEO Jewish Federations of North America, 2004-2009; President/CEO Jewish Federation Pittsburgh, 1981-2004; and with the Cleveland Jewish Federation, 1970-1981 in various positions concluding as Director of Operations.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in The Jewish Chronicle.