Temple Ohav Shalom Celebrates 50 Years
Mar 30, 2020 03:21PM
By Hilary Daninhirsch
Photos courtesy Tracy Brien Photography
Fifty years ago, a small group of families united for a common purpose: to establish a Jewish community in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh.
Originally called the North Hills Jewish Community Center, the 40 or so families congregated in private homes, churches, hotels and other public buildings until they could secure their own space. Eventually, the group purchased a building on Duncan Avenue and in 1981, became Temple Ohav Shalom (Hebrew translation: the temple of love and peace), a Reform Jewish synagogue.
Commensurate with the growth of the community, the temple eventually outgrew that space, and in 1999, the members renovated a former racquet club on Thompson Run Road, complete with a sanctuary, educational classrooms, a Holocaust garden, and spaces for social gatherings. Today, Temple Ohav Shalom serves approximately 150-160 Jewish households.
The fact that the synagogue is celebrating its 50th year is significant. “From a spiritual place in Judaism, the jubilee year has biblical precedent. We’re engaging more people, and we can celebrate the vibrancy of the synagogue and the demographic changes happening in the North Hills of Pittsburgh,” said spiritual leader Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt.
According to a 2018 study, today about 10 percent of Pittsburgh’s Jewish population lives in the North Hills and many of these are young families, which accounts for much of the synagogue’s growth.
“Traditionally, it was just people from Pittsburgh who joined the synagogue but now, transplants make up the bulk of new membership,” said Aaron Brauser, a congregant and head of the 50th anniversary committee.
“That speaks to the needs of the community,” added Rabbi Weisblatt.
Indeed, Temple Ohav Shalom offers an extensive educational program from preschool through high school, and it recently renovated a space in the youth lounge specifically designated for teens.
The temple has evolved tremendously from its nascency. Gerri Greenberg had just moved to Pittsburgh in 1971 and settled in the North Hills; she has been affiliated with the temple almost since it began.
“There were a lot of folks who moved here that had no family in Pittsburgh; they made the temple community their family,” she said. "It is a very welcoming community; it has been so from day one."
That family feeling exists to this day. In addition to regular worship services, Temple Ohav Shalom offers clubs for tots, youth, women, and men, as well as an array of lifelong learning opportunities, a book club, and regular social events. On the third Friday night of each month, a house band plays lively music in the fully participatory worship services.
Though the synagogue has been in existence for five decades, it is only in recent years that it has begun to integrate into the community at large. “Our goal is to connect more with the community and to use the 50th anniversary as the opportunity to highlight that we are here,” said Brauser.
To that end, Rabbi Weisblatt and the leadership work in tandem to connect with the community, and the rabbi is currently working with other area clergy to create the first true interfaith clergy organization for the North Hills.
“We are also working with other communities of color and looking at all of the different ways that Ohav can be a participant in the civic light of Pittsburgh,” he explained. “We also have a social justice task force engaging in the North Hills. We are embracing all the gifts our community has to offer by engaging with the larger Pittsburgh community.”
Since last fall, the synagogue has coordinated several events to commemorate its 50th anniversary. This past November, the temple hosted an arts weekend, which included a comedy troupe and an artist in residence. In December, it hosted a community Chanukah celebration with a menorah lighting in McCandless Crossing.
Unfortunately, events scheduled for April have had to be cancelled for the time-being. These included an evening with Noah Aronson, a popular Jewish singer/songwrier, and the Night of Celebration gala, which also doubles as the synagogue's annual fundraiser. The final piece of the celebration, A Sample of Judaism, a Jewish food festival open to the public that highlights Jewish holiday foods, is still tentatively scheduled for May 17.
“If you’re looking at really creating a new mission, vision and value statement for the congregation to move forward over the next 5 to 10 years, it’s embracing and engaging people as learners in all walks of life and embracing the notion of serving the entire community here,” said Rabbi Weisblatt.
“The Jewish community is changing at a pace that no one has ever seen,” he added. “We have a real openness to exploring where the community is now and breaking out of the four walls of the synagogue.”