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September 6, 2015 / conservadox

Pittsburgh – Squirrel Hill shuls

I’ve now been to every shul in Squirrel Hill (except for a few of the informal minyans)

Some of these shuls only have Friday night/Sat morning services.  The full service shuls are Chabad, Shaarey Torah, Poale Zedek, Kollel, Young Israel and Beth Shalom.

Shaarey Torah (about 50-75 men on shabbos; 125 on Rosh Hashanah)

The more liberal minded of the two big modern Orthodox shuls- not so much based on its rabbi but its congregants.  You see shorter sleeves, fewer wigs etc on the women who go there than at Poale Zedek (though more than at Young People’s).  Rabbi is big sports fan, New Yorker, has a casual manner.  Hawkish politically, preached against Iran deal first time I saw him (not my taste, since my foreign policy views are closer to Ron Paul than Norman Podhoretz).  Rosh Hashanah sermon was apolitical and was OK (something about reframing matters to aid in the teshuva process). Very likable one on one; one of these guys who I like better the more I see him.

Kiddush is bigger than average Queens Kiddush but smaller than average Manhattan Kiddush (i.e. not full meal).  The first time I was there I got a lunch invite from the rabbi (mixed bag – good to be invited but I wonder if it suggests lack of bench strength in this area).  Second time I had prearranged invite.  I’ve been to both here and Poale Zedek (see below) twice (as of Yom Kippur) for Seudah Shlichit (the third meal on Shabbos between mincha and maariv); PZ’s is more social and has better food, so I think I prefer PZ for that.

There is also a 7:15 minyan; it has about 15-20 guys, ends 9:10 so less than 2 hours- probably the quickest Shabbos minyan I’ve ever been to.  No sermon.

Poale Zedek (about 100 men)

Friendliest shul- every time I’ve gone there I’ve garnered invites.  Modern Orthodox (lots of lawyers etc) but more pious than Shaarey Torah.   Can support 3 morning minyans, while Shaarey Torah only gets one minyan with usually 15 guys or so.  (Then again if Poale Zedek didn’t have 3 minyans maybe Shaarey Torah would – I suspect the shuls are similar enough, both geographically and ideologically, that you might have same people going to both places).  Rabbi VERY impressive.  Wears black hat but doesn’t sound like “black hat” rabbi, talks about Israel a lot but not so much in a political way as in a spiritual way- he gives a real sense of loving the land.  The one time I was there shabbos morning, kiddush was all sweets but VERY good if you like that sort of thing (as I do).

The Kollel (about 25 men)

More of an outreach organization I think but they do have daily and shabbos minyans.  Lots of black hats- very yeshivish.  When I went to shabbos minyans it felt very different.   First of all, women are literally invisible- they are behind a curtain where they can’t see anything and you can’t see them; I saw only one there after the service and she wasn’t there for Kiddush, so its definitely sexist.  Sermon also very unusual- 5 minutes or so before the Torah reading (fast talking, in yeshivish argot so I didn’t really understand all of it) then a short shiur during Kiddush (which is small, just cookies and herring).   Davening is also unusual, at least until the blessings before the Shema – because the prayer leader isn’t any louder than the congregation its hard to figure out where everyone else here. Instead of going home to lunch they learn some more Torah after Kiddush; I wasn’t asked to lunch but then again I was tired enough that I didn’t linger till the bitter end.

Young Israel (20 men or so)

Kind of between the modern shuls and the Kollel.  Rabbi is yeshivish guy from London, likable and scholarly but culturally right wing (sermon mentioned cross-dressing as a thing today; not sure whether he was confusing that with transgender).   Congregation a mix, some black hat but more modern than the Kollel.  I haven’t been there for Seudah Shlichit yet.

Young People’s Synagogue (17 men the first shabbos I was there, about 25 second day of Rosh Hashanah)

This lay-led, quirky little sort-of-Orthodox shul, despite its name, has the oldest membership I have seen in a long time.  Only one or two people were even arguably as young as I, and the median age was about 70.   I say “sort-of-Orthodox” because even though men and women sit separately and women don’t have any ritual role, there is technically not a mechitza, so that might make it unacceptable to some.  Also, they have mincha after kiddush, which might be halachically a mistake at this time of the year (since it was around 12:30).  Pretty friendly, as you might expect from such a small place, but kiddush is quick because they want to do mincha before everyone leaves.   Food is sweets and hummus.  Rosh Hashanah service was only slightly shorter than Shaarey Torah- absence of full sermon made up for by more piyutim.  No Shabbos mincha/maariv, only Friday night and Sat morning services.

Beth Shalom (Conservative) (80 people)

I I go here a lot during the week because it is the closest shul with daily minyans (which are perfectly OK); its a pretty normal trad-egal minyan (except sometimes people bring small children in the mornings because of the shul preschool, which can create noise issues).

As far as shabbos goes, some positives and negatives.  What I liked:  very friendly; I was there talking to people for an hour or so.  No lunch invites but the promise of one in the future.  People not as old as in most conservative shuls. Big kiddush by Pittsburgh standards, though not a full meal (tuna, hummus, cucumbers, fruit, some sweets)

What I disliked:

  1. they have some sort of security feature which creates a piercing, annoying electronic noise when you open the door, and they didn’t bother to turn it off for Shabbat.  I realize Conservative Jews generally think electricity is OK, but why antagonize visitors from other backgrounds?  They also didn’t have a third meal (something I can understand for haredi shuls where people do it at home, but in my opinion totally uncool for Chabad or Conservative shuls where you can’t count on that) and ended Shabbos so early that until I checked I thought they had inadvertently violated it.
  2. Lots of jumping around early in service; for example they did Psalm 145 and 150 but not the ones in between.  Slow daveners like me need that extra time just to do the ones they cover in shul.
  3. Lots of excess chazzanut at certain points (especially Kedusah where they might repeat same words a few times) that makes the service seem as slow as drying paint.  Takes two and a half hours even with truncated Pseuki’d’Zimra.
  4. Lay led dvar Torah; I wasn’t in love with the one I heard.
  5. Instead of being in huge sanctuary, Shabbat morning service is in small chapel- making it seem higher energy if you like this future, unpleasantly crammed if you don.t.

Will probably go there now and then for social reasons but it won’t be my primary shul for shabbos.

The Big Chabad (at Yeshiva on Wightman St- there are also small Chabad minyanim in the neighborhood as well) (100 men)

This is a cultural experience.  While most Chabad shuls are outreach-oriented and small, this one was about 90% of the people are black hat Chabadniks, but it is still very friendly (I had a lunch invite before kiddush started!).  Everyone does his own thing, so there’s this kind of constant buzz- while some people are davening, others who (I would guess) prayed earlier in the morning are studying.  The service is not for early risers; it runs 10-12:30.   Kiddush is sitdown but pretty small.  I wouldn’t want to be a woman here; woman are totally invisible from the men’s side, on a balcony and with a mechitza that I suspect makes the service completely invisible to the women.  In addition, the men and the women are separated at kiddush.  (By the way, this is NOT normal for Chabad; more outreach-oriented Chabad shuls are as good as most modern Orthodox shuls at making the service visible to women, this shul is just an outlier).  Sermon was good; rabbi discussed the hakhel ritual, he explained that it made sense not as a means of learning Torah (since that’s easier to do in small groups) but as a public spectacle and reenactment of Sinaitic revelation.  I liked it better than I expected, though I still think one of the modern shuls is more right for me on balance.

Chabad Beginners’ Minyan (15 men) (girls’ school at 6401 Forbes)

A typical outreach-oriented minyan is a bit like a Hershey bar- very nice, but the same everywhere.   And this Chabad minyan is an excellent example- much more orchestrated than the Big Chabad (that is, the rabbi makes sure to explain which page we are at etc), very nice and pleasant, rabbi is intelligent and friendly.  Kiddush is big by Pittsburgh standards, though no bread so not a full halachic meal.   Service is not for early risers; I arrived at 10:15 and they were doing Baruch She’amar, got home from kiddush at 1:30 or so.  Mix of people, some more observant than others, as you would expect from this sort of place.

Kesser Torah (20-25 men) (meets at Hillel Academy on 5685 Beacon St., NOT in original Kesser Torah building across the street).

This shul is kind of a middle ground between the Chabad big shul and the Chabad outreach minyan – the rabbi seemed to me like a Chabad guy, but the group was a mix between Chabad, modern Orthodox and maybe a few non-Hasidic black hat guys.  Some other quirks:

*Unlike Chabad, this shul meets at 9 am (which is probably why they get Chabad guys- the early risers go here)

*Short service – only 2 and a quarter hours.  Really short sermon.  I understand the rabbi but he used enough Hebrew that I’m not sure I would have five or ten years ago.

*They use Chabad “Sfard” liturgy, which means Psukei’d’Zimra takes a few extra minutes but otherwise seems pretty Ashkenazic.

*No kiddush the day I was there (the Shabbos before Pesach which maybe had something to do with it).  I have never seen a shul without a kiddush except in NYC’s outer boroughs.  No one invited me to lunch either, but then again I didn’t lounge around very much so maybe if I waited a few more minutes someone would have.

Naamat- WEEKDAYS ONLY, 6328 Forbes

This Chabad minyan meets at 8:15, for late risers who live too far east for the big Chabad minyan.  They take a bit longer to daven than other minyans though; there’s cake and coffee after, so a good place for people who can linger.

New Light (just under 20 people) (Conservative)

If you want to go to a small, aging Conservative congregation New Light is for you!  And because prayer space is made for 150, you can have a row of seats (or maybe even two or three rows) for yourself. When I was there only one person (other than the rabbi’s family) was visibly under 50 (or, I suspect, under 60).   On the positive side, I liked the rabbi, who gave an interesting talk about the decline of religion in affluent countries.  Rabbi and wife are friendly, knew institutions that I knew. Kiddush is very short and small- just cake, and parve cake at that (I think).   Shul is moderately friendly- people introduce themselves but don’t linger.

One very quirky thing about New Light:  during Pseuki’d’Zimra they jumped back and forth a lot: I think once they had a minyan (around the Nishmat prayer) they wanted to go back and do kaddish and a couple of other prayers that they  skipped.  Also lots of English responsive readings, which I normally associate with Reform synagogues.

Tree of Life (aka Or’v’Simcha) (Conservative) (35 people)

Tree of Life is a midsized, somewhat left-leaning Conservative shul.   They have morning (but not afternoon) minyans during the week. A few of its quirks:

  1.   They do Kriat Shma and the Amidah but they cut out most of Pseuki’d’Zimra (most notably Psalms 146-49) .  (They cut out a bit more during the week; I think they only do Ashrei once for instance).
  2. Congregation on the old side but not one of the oldest-median age 60.
  3. They did a group aliyah for a husband and a wife.
  4. Unusually informal- the rabbi introduced himself as “Rabbi Chuck” and the only men wearing a tie were me and the shul president.  About half the women were wearing pants, which I think is above average for a Conservative shul.
  5. Some halachic literacy issues- they set bread out for kiddush without anyplace to wash (or salt for that matter).   Otherwise, kiddush is a meal but a light one- bananas, oranges, tuna, hummus, yogurt, lettuce, lots of cake.  Pretty friendly but my sense is that this is a place that they were very eager for you to join, so after a few visits my guess is a typical person is going to want to bail out completely or make a commitment (to a much greater extent than Beth Shalom I think).

Partnership Minyan (about 20-25 men, maybe half that many women) (Orthodox, sort of)

A partnership minyan is a minyan in which men and women sit separately (as in all Orthodox minyans) but in which women participate in the service to a greater extent than in a typical Orthodox service- for example, by leading some parts of the service or reading from the Torah.

Pittsburgh’s partnership minyan meets once a month (usually, but not always, on the last Shabbos of the month) in the Jewish Community Center at the corner of Forbes and Murray.  Services start at 9. My sense is that it draws heavily from Shaarey Torah and from Conservative shuls as well.  Most people seem to be in the 40s or 50s so it doesn’t feel old now, but I don’t know to what extent it can replenish its supply of younger members over the next decade or two.  There is no formal rabbi; the first time I went, the dvar Torah was given by the rebbetzin of one of the Conservative shuls.  Everything is very nice, and I thought it was friendly but that may only be because I knew people there from other shuls I visited.  Kiddush is a bit larger than average for Pgh- fruit, hummus, whitefish salad, oreos.

Dor Chadash (20 adults, more kids than usual due to service honoring Hebrew school or something) (Reconstructionist)

This congregation meets in the Tree of Life building at Shady and Wilkins, on the lower level.  I hadn’t been to a Reconstructionist service for about a dozen years, so I didn’t know what to expect.  I knew it was somewhere between Conservative and Reform but didn’t know which it was more like.  It was definitely more like Reform, so I’m glad that I sort of davened before going there (by which I mean, said a few key prayers).   Here are some of the differences between them and mainstream Conservative practice:

  1.  Cut out most of Pseuki DeZimra; Ashrei (Psalm 145) isn’t even in their siddur for Shachrit (not that they don’t like it, its in Musaf and they decided one Ashrei was enough).  I arrived at about this point, ,and they did Psalms 147 and 150, Nishmat and Yishtbach before Kriat Shema.
  2. Cut down on the Kriat Shema blessings before Shema itself- I’d say they did about half.
  3. morning Amidah was a bit freaky -they did spoken up to Kedushah, then silent, then spoken again.  A bit disorienting.
  4. Only three aliyot to Torah, all group aliyot because they were honoring the Hebrew school children or something.
  5. No Haftorah.
  6. No Musaf amidah    Even with all that service took around 1:45.

Siddur (other than cutting out the first Ashrei and Musaf- the other stuff was the congregation’s own initative) had some good commentary so that was a positive. Sermon very short. They had a full lunch (except there wasn’t salt so I decided I should do hamotzi at home and didn’t eat bread).  It was sit down so some compulsory socialization, so moderately friendly- but people didn’t linger more than 20 or 30 minutes.

Definitely too far left for me, but if you lean more towards Reform anyhow it might be for you.

Temple Sinai (Reform) (30 people)

I finally went to Squirrel Hill’s sole Reform congregation (though Rodef Shalom is on Fifth Avenue in Shadyside, so probably a 30 min walk away).  It is definitely not classical Reform- everyone was wearing yarmulkes and the service was mostly in Hebrew.

Even so it was an adjustment from my perspective, even compared to Dor Chadash.  The most obvious differences:

  1.  The rabbi played a guitar for about half the service.
  2. Jewish aerobics is very different- they stand up when more traditional Jews sit down (Kriat Shema) and sit down when more traditional Jews stand up (the beginning and end of Pseuki D’Zimra).
  3. Haftorah, but said in English rather than chanted.
  4. Only one aliyah (though they did read from the Torah). Because the Torah reading was so short we weren’t really encouraged to have the Chumash on hand (too bad because the Plaut Chumash is actually not bad).
  5. Everyone was on time, unlike Dor Chadash where the Orthodox/Conservative tradition of gradually drifting in was preserved.

On the other hand, they did keep a few things Dor Chadash deleted from the service- Ashrei, the early part of Kriat Shema.  Their Amidah was recognizable (though as with Dor Chadash there was no Musaf).

Service took about an hour and a half.  Small kiddush (fruit, grape juice, one loaf of challah) but I didn’t indulge because I’m in shloshim for my father and am not sure I should go to kiddush during shloshim.



Leave a Comment
  1. Shira Salamone / Sep 9 2015 3:35 pm

    It’s just our luck that so many Conservative synagogues seem to be going under, even in neighborhoods in which Orthodox synagogues are thriving. (Our son lived in a Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh, and the Conservative shul there was not in great shape, though it was surrounded by thriving Ortho shuls.) I do sometimes wonder whether the Conservative Movement’s parents, us included 😦 , and/or institutions have done a poor job of teaching children communal responsibility. When I was growing up in a Conservative shul in South Jersey, it would have been unthinkable for even a rebellious kid who didn’t want to go to synagogue to go to school on Yom Tov–rebels stayed home all day to ensure that other kids who didn’t go to school on Yom Tov wouldn’t get into trouble. Keeping one’s kid(s) out of school on Yom Tov is practically unheard of when we were raising our son. And when I was growing up it was a given that one joined the nearest Conservative synagogue, whether one was a regular shul-goer or a 3-days-a-year Jew, because the synagogue needed our support. But many folks who grew up Conservative more recently don’t seem to care whether a shul even gets a minyan, much less whether it survives or not.

  2. conservadox / Sep 19 2015 10:16 pm

    I’ve only been to one of the three (!) Conservative shuls in the neighborhood- I’ll be more able to comment after I’ve been to Tree of Life and New Light (the other two). Beth Shalom never seems to have issues with morning minyans in my experience but sometimes they’ve had to struggle to get ten for the afternoon (though they somehow managed every time I’ve been there). I do think that there’s kind of a natural cap on minyan size for Conservative (and even the less committed Orthodox) congregations; if people see the minyan is too far above ten (say,over 15 or 20), they figure they aren’t needed and either don’t go or go someplace smaller.

  3. Increasingly Observant / May 12 2016 10:49 am

    Fantastic and invaluable write-up, thank you. I’ll be moving back to Pittsburgh soon and your insights are really helpful in finding a good fit. I have some questions regarding the culture in Pittsburgh’s shuls regarding gerim. Though always raised Jewish (Reform) with a Jewish father, my mother converted after my birth and I formally converted with a (Conservative) Beit Din. Now I will be looking for a sponsoring Rabbi in Pittsburgh for Orthodox conversion. Any way to reply off-blog about this? Thanks again – really enjoy your posts.

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