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JCC State of Mind: A weekly message to staff, board, and stakeholders

Posted by Jason Kunzman, President/CEO JCC of Greater Pittsburgh on September 29, 2023

September 29, 2023

Our JCC has been working locally to eradicate hate ever since 1895 when the Council of Jewish Women founded the Columbian School and Settlement in Pittsburgh’s Hill District to assist thousands of Jews who had immigrated from their native lands in Eastern Europe to escape persecution and the lack of economic opportunity. In 1909, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Kaufmann donated a building, equipment and money, as a memorial to their daughter, Irene, and the agency then became known as the Irene Kaufmann Settlement helping immigrants adjust to their lives in America. The staff trained them to work and helped them to find jobs. Children and families benefited from new playgrounds, a “Milk Well” program to purchase affordable milk, a “Better Baby” healthcare clinic and a place to “escape” during the summers called Emma Farm, now known as Emma Kaufmann Camp. Way back when, we eradicated hate by helping neighbors live in harmony with each other.

This week, as we have been doing for the past three years, our JCC is working globally to eradicate hate.  Maggie Feinstein of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, Bill Isler of the JCC Board and Center for Loving Kindness Advisory Committee, and I are attending the third annual Eradicate Hate Global Summit.  Born out of the October 2018 synagogue shooting, the Global Summit provides a unique and inclusive forum to share ideas and build working relationships to drive the development and deployment of effective and sustainable approaches to reduce hate-fueled violence.

For our part, Maggie, Bill and I are involved in two working groups. The first is an effort to bring the documentary Repairing the World: Stories from The Tree of Life to public school districts and communities across our region so that our neighbors can be inspired to repair our world by digging in deep to our story of unfortunate antisemitism and hate. The second is a dream to create a multidisciplinary response team across the region so that victims of hate and bias will have a supportive network of counselors, law enforcement, educators, spiritual leaders, and others to help them on their journey and to materially change the trajectory of hate and bias in our region.

Our work over the last six years through the Center for Loving Kindness has taught us that eradicating hate at the local level is really all about redefining the word “neighbor” from a geographic term to a moral concept. That is why we recently celebrated the reconciliation relationship of Leon Ford (who was shot and subsequently paralyzed by the Pittsburgh Police in an incident of mistaken identity) and former Pittsburgh Chief of Police Scott Schubert at our Yom Kippur High Holidays of Hope. They modelled for us how even with the challenges we face along our respective journeys, the path forward must be approached hand-in-hand, sometimes with the most unlikely of partners.

Imagine what the rest of us can do in combatting hate of all kinds if we are willing to engage in this kind of neighbor-to-neighbor work and conversation.

Wishing you and your families a Shabbat shalom and Chag Sukkot sameach,

Rabbi Ron Symons

Senior Director of Jewish Life & Founding Director of JCC’s Center for Loving Kindness

September 22, 2023

For Rosh Hashana, the Conservative Jewish movement called upon its rabbis to make mention of Rabbi Harold Kushner (z”l) in each of their sermons over the New Year holiday. As many of you might recall, Rabbi Kushner, one of the most influential congregational rabbis of the 20th century whose works of popular theology extended well beyond the walls of the synagogue, passed away in April of this year. Perhaps best known for his book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Kushner first served as a military chaplain in Oklahoma, assumed his first pulpit as an assistant rabbi in Great Neck, New York in 1962 and moved to Natick, MA in 1966 to become the congregational rabbi at Temple Israel, where he served in that role for 24 years.

My wife Dana grew up at Temple Israel with Rabbi Kushner at the helm. She would often share stories about her days at Solomon Schechter in Newton, MA growing up with his children, Aaron and Ariel, and the commanding presence he had on the bimah. After his retirement from the pulpit, Rabbi Kushner not only maintained his membership at Temple Israel, but he also helped lead High Holiday services for many years. Going back to Massachusetts for Rosh Hashana each year, Dana and I had the good fortune to hear a number of Rabbi Kushner’s compelling sermons. Each one was better than the one before and without fail, each sermon explored a dimension of Judaism in a way that touched the hearts and souls of everyone in attendance.

Between the first and second days of Rosh Hashana this year after Temple Israel’s Rabbi Raysh Weiss did in fact make mention of Rabbi Kushner in her sermon, I found myself recalling Rabbi Kushner’s 2012 sermon during which he spoke about the importance of intentionality in our day to day lives and with many of our Jewish rituals and customs. He spoke about the origins of Jewish dietary laws, for example, and quickly dispelled the misconception that the system of keeping kosher derives “from some obsolete ideas about what foods or combination of foods are unhealthy in hot climates.” Instead, he explained, “They are an effort to take something we share with the animals, the need to eat every day, and elevate it above the animal level by imposing choice on instinct. That is what holiness means for humans, imposing choice on instinct, in a way that no other living creature can do.” He then discussed Shabbat saying, “This Friday will be the autumnal equinox, twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of darkness. After that, days will gradually get shorter, and the sun will set earlier without our having to do anything to make it happen. It’s automatic. That’s Nature. But the day after Friday won’t be Shabbat unless we turn it into Shabbat, unless we light candles and spend the day differently. We have that power.”

During our new Board member orientation earlier this week, I was asked about why I thought our recovery in membership following the darkest days of the pandemic had outpaced initial projections from back in March 2022. Behind the three answers I gave was that word again – intentionality. At its core, intentionality is the practice of being deliberate and purposeful in your thoughts, actions and decisions, and when applied to community service, intentionality can have a profound positive impact on improving situations. The good news is that not only has our performance in membership benefitted from a well thought through and comprehensive strategy of putting the customer at the center of everything we do, but so has our performance in other key areas of the JCC, including, but not limited to, Jewish engagement and day and overnight camping. I am excited to share that in partnership with 5 local congregations, our JCC’s Center for Loving Kindness Start the New Year with a Mitzvah experience surpassed its goal of 1,000 care bags by 20% and we are already nearing capacity for Summer 2024 at EKC, J&R Day Camp and South Hills Day Camp – and that’s with day camp registration only having been open for 10 days! Driving this most recent success is, without question, our renewed commitment to excellence and intentionally curating experiences that meet emerging needs for connection, wellness and community.

Intentionality empowers our JCC staff to be accountable for the outcomes of their work, to make purposeful choices and to navigate daily challenges more effectively. By practicing intentionality, individuals can move closer to their goals, create a more fulfilling and meaningful existence and as Rabbi Kushner said in his 2012 sermon, “bring holiness into the world and to model holiness for others.”

May you all be inscribed in the book of life and, for those who celebrate, have a meaningful fast.

Wishing you and your families a Shabbat shalom,


September 15, 2023

“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” —Andy WarholOrganizations often find it difficult to change for several reasons, which can vary depending on the specific organization and its context. Some of the most common hurdles to change include, but are certainly not limited to, cultural inertia, rigid organizational structures, aversion to risk, lack of employee engagement and perceived time constraints. However, at the JCC, you might think that one of the C’s in our name stands for “Change” given our longstanding record of overcoming and adapting.

Take for example our senior center pilot in the South Hills, which launched in February 2023 and is funded by the Jack Buncher Foundation to better meet the needs of older adults in the local community. Through AgeWell at the South Hills, we have grown to provide the area’s only kosher grab-and-go and congregate meals 3 times per week as well as a number of activities and clubs that match the interests of our members and mitigate the risk of social isolation. One recent experience, though, really speaks to the value of trying new things and meeting audiences where they are. In recognition of National Grandparents Day, AgeWell at the South Hills hosted an intergenerational program for older adults and their grandchildren. Despite concerns over children within our early childhood center having to be picked up from school and then return to the JCC, nearly 30 grandparents and their grandchildren gathered Monday evening for a slew of activities that included line dancing, arts & crafts, games, puzzles and of course ice cream BEFORE dinner! Kudos to our AgeWell team for dreaming in color and not letting logistics get in the way of harnessing connections across the generations and building stronger families!

And then there is our High Holidays of Hope. Six years ago, we dedicated ourselves to providing a different type of high holiday experience than what is traditionally offered throughout the community. That experience, in and of itself, was a decision to change the way that we celebrate the holidays. Based on the data of the 2017 Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, we began to offer something different to meet the needs of members of the Jewish community who do not go to synagogue on the high holidays (50% according to the study), those who want something supplemental to synagogue services, and the non-Jewish community who wants to be in Jewish space on the high holidays (who now represent 25% of our attendees).

Through the years, we have continued to offer High Holidays of Hope as an adult-centric, intellectual experience only in Squirrel Hill. Despite the success of this approach, this year marks another change in our ongoing efforts to meet the needs of the community.  While still offering an adult-centric Yom Kippur High Holidays of Hope, including a contemporary yizkor/memorial service, we are offering a more active community experience on Rosh Hashanah that is accessible to every age in both Squirrel Hill and the South Hills. Our Start the New Year with a Mitzvah is built on the threefold concept of what these high holidays are all about. Jewish wisdom teaches us that we can impact our fate in the Book of Life through three actions: prayer, repentance and charity. When you scan the offerings in our community, it is easy to find places to pray on Rosh Hashanah. We also know that so many of us are introspective at this season. However, no where in our community, other than at the JCCs in Squirrel Hill and South Hills, can you come together on Rosh Hashanah to engage in charity as a whole community no matter your age.

Change can be hard, but with commitment and the right approach, such as a data informed vision of community and partnering with five congregations (Beth-El CongregationKesher PittsburghRodef ShalomTemple Emanuel and Temple Sinai), organizations and communities can overcome obstacles and evolve to meet new challenges and opportunities.

Shabbat shalom and l’shana tova. Wishing you and your families the best this new year has to offer.


September 10, 2023

The advancement of the civic, intellectual and social welfare of the surrounding community. 
Encouraging self-improvement.

The modern-day Jewish Community Center was built on these core principles. Through the years, they provided us direction and purpose in creating job placement services for new arrivals to the Pittsburgh region, a variety of healthcare services for vulnerable populations, a summertime escape from the rigors of city life now known as Emma Kaufmann Campthe Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagementthe 10.27 Healing Partnership and countless other programs and services designed to improve the quality of life for individuals and the community.These principles are meaningful to me, both personally and professionally. As local residents for 16 of the last 22 years, my family and I have benefited greatly from the JCC’s vision and commitment to service and its focus on, as the organization’s mission statement reads, “nurturing people” and “connecting community.”So, it is with a sense of gratitude and humility that I take on the responsibility of leading the JCC into the future. Drawing upon those who have come before me, most notably my friend and colleague Brian Schreiber, and all that has been accomplished along the way, I look forward to bringing my passion and determination to expand and deepen the agency’s reach and impact as we take on the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

As is typically the case, this transition in leadership provides a unique opportunity for us to harness our organizational curiosity and ask questions that allow us to redefine what is possible for our constituents, the JCC staff and the broader Jewish community.Through a process of listening, learning and leading, I will help chart a path forward in our relentless pursuit of excellence to better meet needs related to health, wellness, safety and connection while ensuring a stronger and more resilient future for all.I commit to listen to my team at the JCC – both staff and our Board – as well as colleagues from across the community to expose ourselves to different perspectives and avoid the pitfalls of believing there is only one way to solve a problem. Our values can only be strengthened, and our reach magnified through collaboration and better appreciating one another’s perspectives.In this interconnected world, we will embrace the opportunity to learn from anyone, from anywhere breaking down the echo chambers of “the usual suspects” and standard sources of information which we typically rely upon. This is the way we will truly accelerate the meaningful process of initiating positive change.Leadership requires both a commitment to excellence as well as harnessing the courage and strength to seek out and expose ourselves to topics and circumstances in which dialogue and action are necessary. This will be critical in the agency’s role to challenge the status quo and foster a sense of collective ownership and accountability across our community while staying rooted in what we hold most dear about the JCC.

Over the coming weeks and months, I look forward to listeninglearning and
leading as we begin our 129th year of service. The JCC will continue to sharpen its vision for how tomorrow can be better than today and strive for greater impact, raising an already high bar. We will expand our partnerships to take on longstanding and complicated issues while also maintaining the highest standards of quality in the programs and experiences we deliver each and every day. Arm-in-arm with our staff, we will further our organizational culture of collaboration, creativity and continuous learning and aim to make the JCC one of very the best places to work throughout the Pittsburgh region!
Building community, innovating, pushing boundaries, investing in and activating talent, taking risks and collaborating have been in our organizational DNA since 1895. I look forward to co-authoring the next chapter of the JCC’s storied history with each of you.Thanks for believing in the magic and the promise of our beloved agency. Together, we are going to achieve great things.

Wishing you and your families a Shabbat shalom,


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