Pittsburgh Strong: A city of collaboration and resilience

The word “resilience” is often tossed around when discussing communal life and institutions, but after a recent trip to Pittsburgh with the Jewish Communal Leadership Program at the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work, I have a much deeper understanding of what resilience truly means.

Arduous does not begin to describe the past five years for Pittsburgh, and its Jewish community in particular. The brutal massacre of 11 Jewish community members at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, represented the deadliest act of antisemitism in American history. The local and national Jewish community responded with heroic resolve, coming together in the face of that trauma to affirm the promise of American values of diversity and equal protection and to reject hatred. That resolve was tested again by the struggle to sustain community institutions in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic; and then once more when Russia invaded Ukraine, deeply affecting the over 21,000 Ukrainian citizens living in Allegheny County. And now, in the wake of Hamas’ horrific attack against Israel on Oct. 7 — the deadliest act of antisemitism the world has witnessed since the Holocaust — relationships between Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and other local ethnic and religious communities are being tested.

The JCLP had the opportunity to meet with the leaders of most of Pittsburgh’s Jewish communal institutions. What was fascinating was that the abovementioned tragedies were not the main focus of our discussions. Instead, our conversations centered on how each communal institution — and the city overall — have leaned into their core competencies in the face of adversity to build a stronger, more united community. While we of course spent much time discussing the trauma of Oct. 27, 2018, and subsequent challenges, the underlying premise and overall takeaway was how a strong communal infrastructure — rooted in mutual interests, shared vision, and genuine relationships — allowed the city to pivot quickly, respond effectively and create a more connected community.

Karla Goldman (far right), director of the University of Michigan School of Social Work’s Jewish Communal Leadership Program, visits Rodeph Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh, Penn., with JCLP students (author is second from right). Courtesy/Ben Shovers

JCLP visits a different city each year to learn about a new Jewish community and its leadership structures. As a second-year JCLP student, for instance, I have already had the opportunity to visit Cincinnati and Detroit and meet with many Jewish communal professionals in both of these cities. Each visit affords JCLP students the opportunity to observe the different organizations, relationships, and qualities that define each community. Federations, Jewish community centers and Jewish family services agencies have different roles in every community, for example, but they all share the same goal of building an integrated, cohesive, and thriving community. 

Indeed, my impression from my visit to Pittsburgh is that its Jewish leaders’ genuine commitment to collaboration toward this shared goal predates the challenges of the past five years. They recognize that by working synergistically, they can optimize their financial resources and institutional knowledge to maximize their level of impact on the community writ large. 

I had many major takeaways from this visit. I was reminded of how many different, yet incredibly effective, leadership styles there are, and that Jewish communities often look radically different across the country. What works in one community may not work in another. I also learned that mutually desired and mutually beneficial collaborations produce a more robust communal foundation, and that it is critical to build these relationships before an emergency occurs and not just in response to one. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I saw that relationships are the quintessential linchpin to success, both for communal leaders and individuals. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks affirms that “in times of difficulty, the response that matters most is not the one that wins, but the one that heals… we need to create communities of shared responsibility, built on mutual respect, shared purpose, and collective action.” The great rabbi’s wisdom encapsulates so much of my reflection on our trip to Pittsburgh and what makes the city and its Jewish community so resilient.

Ben Shovers is completing a dual master’s degree in business and social work at the University of Michigan, where he is a member of the Jewish Communal Leadership Program. He plans to pursue a career as a Jewish communal professional.