ERIE, Pa. – Chabad of Western Pennsylvania is looking to make a splash in Erie.
Chabad, known for its hyper-local Jewish outreach efforts, is sending a young New York City-bred rabbi and his family to the northwestern Pennsylvanian city to establish the group’s presence in the coming months. Though COVID-19 makes timelines difficult to predict, the organization hopes to have a private residence set up in time for Rosh Hashanah services this September.
Erie’s Jewish population – split among the unaffiliated and two synagogues, at an estimated size of under 500 people – has declined along with the city’s broader population, as most Rust Belt cities have. Chabad leadership, however, said it does not measure the region’s importance in head counts. Erie’s population in 2019 was slightly above 95,000, 6% below where it was a decade earlier, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“There are Jews living out there and that’s all we need to know,” said Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, executive director of Chabad of Western Pennsylvania. “We go to visit them, help them out – that’s what Chabad is all about all over the world.”
“Whatever it is there’s a need for, that’s what we’re there for,” he added.
Rabbi Dovie Kivman will lead the mission to Erie, with his wife, Mushkie, and their 1-year-old son, Yossele. Kivman grew up in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, N.Y., and has served there, as well as elsewhere in the U.S., in Kazakhstan, and at a yeshiva in Safed, Israel.
“We’re going to open a Chabad house, and it’s a home where every Jew is welcomed and everything about Judaism is fun and exciting,” Kivman said. “I want Jews to enjoy Judaism. I want it to be fun.”
Lifelong Erie resident Mark Tanenbaum met Kivman due to the sound of his last name – literally.
“Dov just called me on the phone because my name sounded Jewish – he was right,” laughed Tanenbaum, a member of Reform synagogue Temple Anshe Hesed.
The two have discussed what forms Chabad might take in Erie, Tanenbaum said.
“I want to be an ambassador for our city,” said Tanenbaum, who attended the same Erie high school as his parents, as did his children. “I love the city and living here has been great. To have a Chabad option in Erie is great.”
Though Erie’s Jewish population is not large, Tanenbaum, the director of a performing arts group in the city, stressed it is very interwoven into the city’s fabric.
“We’re very inviting and real here – that’s very Erie,” Tanenbaum said. “You know the old expression, ‘six degrees of separation?’ In Erie, it’s two. I like that.”
Rabbi Mark Goodman lives in Pittsburgh and commutes to Erie to lead services at Brith Sholom, the city’s Conservative shul. Membership at his synagogue, he said, is “very, very small,” but some members observe Shabbat and occasionally trek to Cleveland for kosher meats. Yizkor services are heavily attended.
“More Yiddishkeit is important,” Goodman said “I wish them (the Kivmans) the best of luck.”
For Rosenfeld, who oversees Chabad chapters in Pittsburgh, Altoona and State College, and in West Virginia, the Kivman family is only the beginning of the story for Erie.
“(Chabad in) Pittsburgh started that way in the 1940s, with one family,” he said. “Today, we have 300 Chabad families here – but the entire Jewish community, we work with.”
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh.
This story first appeared in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and is reprinted with permission.