Above: In 1985, Bobby Harris (left) and Beth Gluck (second from right) show their commitment to the Jewish people by meeting with refuseniks while visiting the Soviet Union.
By Tova Norman
As pro football season kicks off this weekend, four leaders of large Jewish organizations in Atlanta are readying their Terrible Towels, the quintessential gear for a Pittsburgh Steelers fan.
Steelers fans are known for their loyalty to the home team, but perhaps that loyalty is about more than football. Perhaps it stems from a deeper connection to the Pittsburgh community.
When Eric Robbins began his post as president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta in August, he joined three fellow Pittsburgh natives atop key Atlanta-area Jewish nonprofit operations: Rick Aranson, the CEO of Jewish Family & Career Services of Atlanta; Beth Gluck, the director of Jewish National Fund’s Southern Zone; and Bobby Harris, the director of Camp Coleman and of youth and camping services for the Southeast Region of the Union for Reform Judaism.
They are among many Pittsburgh natives in Jewish Atlanta, and besides a love for the Steelers (whose season starts Monday, Sept. 12, against the Redskins), they share a connection to Squirrel Hill, the walkable neighborhood where Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is centered. All four leaders pointed to that area as the beginning of their connection to the Jewish world.
“There was a point in my life where my entire extended family lived within two miles of each other in one neighborhood,” Robbins said. “It was a community where everyone was close together, everyone looked out for each other, and everyone spent family time together for every occasion you could think of.”
“We lived and played and went to synagogue all within a small area. Jewish institutions played a very strong role in my sense of community,” she said.
Although Harris lived in Monroeville, a suburb 15 miles from Pittsburgh, he spent four or five days a week in Squirrel Hill for religious school and synagogue services.
“My grandmothers lived in the city. All of my extended family lived there. I was one of the only ones that lived in the suburbs,” he said.
And when he went to Squirrel Hill — with the kosher butcher, the Jewish stores and bakeries, the Jewish Community Center, and all of the synagogues — it was special and different.
“It was very unique to have this neighborhood. I loved walking around there — the smells, the sounds, the tastes. There was this whole strip, and I would run into so many family friends, relatives, and see everyone — that was a great feeling,” Harris said.
That feeling kept them all connected to Jewish life.
“Growing up in Squirrel Hill, the epicenter of the Pittsburgh Jewish community, gave me a rich appreciation of our culture and was the root of my social network,” Aranson said.
Although the four Atlanta leaders pointed to their parents’ involvement in the Jewish community as their first inspiration, the connections they made in Pittsburgh started them on the path to Jewish leadership.
“Through this network I was asked to serve on the board of Jewish Family Services of Pittsburgh, an experience which instilled in me a passion for nonprofit service and which ultimately led me to JF&CS in Atlanta,” Aranson said.
“We had such fantastic role models as leaders of the Jewish community when we were growing up,” Gluck said.
She also credited summer camp with having an impact.
Gluck attended the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s Emma Kaufmann Camp, where her mother was a nurse for 50 years. “Summer camp was a huge influence on how I got where I am today,” she said. “Camp is an offspring of community.”
Harris, who spent summers and afternoons at the JCC’s Family Park near his home in Monroeville, got a taste of the difference he could make in other lives as a counselor at Emma Kaufmann Camp.
“I remember it clicked for me that I had these 10 boys in my bunk, and I could make a difference to them. It enabled me to feel that I could make an impact on the people around me,” he said.
Harris takes that experience into his efforts to inspire campers today.
“Camp is one amazing laboratory for providing leadership opportunities,” he said. “And hopefully we help our young people take the leadership that they experience and learn from at camp and bring that into the rest of their lives.”
Robbins pointed to his experience at Camp Barney Medintz, which first brought him and his older sister to Georgia, as a major factor in his involvement in the community. And like many Barney attendees at the time, it was the Pittsburgh connection of director Moe Kotovsky that brought him there.
“The catapult that really got me to say I wanted to do this for a career was definitely the Barney experience,” Robbins said.
Now, as each of the four looks toward the future and how they can affect the Jewish community in Atlanta and beyond, they can pull inspiration from their Pittsburgh childhood.
“I felt really comfortable in the Jewish community, and I was given those experiences at a young age to be comfortable, and certainly my family being around was part of being comfortable,” Harris said. “I would run into people who knew my parents and knew my grandparents. My extended family was also very involved in the community. One of my cousins was actually the original voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers — one of the first Jewish broadcasters — hired by Steelers owner Art Rooney in the 1930s.”
Combining that comfort with the community with his desire to make a difference and a contribution to society, Harris found that Pittsburgh’s Jewish community was the place to start. “I knew that I wanted to do something that made an impact. The Jewish community afforded me that opportunity.”
The tight-knit nature of Jewish Pittsburgh inspired a desire to be connected.
“I’ve been working as director of JNF for seven years now, and in thinking about why I’ve stayed as long as I have, I think that it’s not only because it is directed to Israel, which is so important to me, but because it very clearly states that it exists for the whole of the Jewish people, for everyone,” Gluck said. “In a time when our Jewish community is fragmented in so many ways, having such a strong sense of community … I’m really proud to be a part of an organization that believes there is a role for every person, Jewish and non-Jewish, in supporting Israel.”
Robbins also felt the impact of that strong sense of community.
“The organized Jewish community was there for every step of the way: preschool, family camp, day camp, overnight camp, college, aging family,” he said. “All of that builds a really strong commitment to community. … My foundation for all of this was growing up in that. … I probably didn’t appreciate it when I was in it.”
He and Aranson hope to make that sense of community stronger in Atlanta.
“Because it’s more of a transient city, there is not as much of a deep connection to organizations,” Aranson said. “I have seen what a close-knit, tightly integrated, collaborative community can be, and I can envision with effort that we can move the needle.”
While Aranson acknowledges that the physical centrality of Squirrel Hill cannot be replicated amid the sprawling metro area here, Atlanta can embody the values of collaboration.
“The collaborative focus, I think, is a key part of both of our visions,” Aranson said of Robbins. The two worked together to open a group home for adults with disabilities at Camp Twin Lakes, which Robbins ran before moving to Federation. “That collaborative model is really the model that’s going to move us forward.”
Gluck said she looks forward to working with fellow Pittsburgh natives.
“I’m really lucky to be able to work with colleagues from similar backgrounds. It’s an honor for me to work with them,” she said.
Gluck and the others want to apply the lessons and examples that make them proud of their hometown.
“I still feel connected to Pittsburgh,” said Gluck, who has lived in Atlanta for 35 years.
“Pittsburgh gave me a very strong foundation to exercise my leadership,” he said. “My love of community and my commitment to the Jewish people really thrived there.”
“It’s really what was there for me; otherwise, I don’t know that I would have the vision or the motivation,” Robbins said of the strong sense of community in Pittsburgh. “I think it taught me how to care about the world, how to care about other communities. I feel really invested in doing good in the world and helping others to do good in the world, and I think a big part of that is, as a Jew, I saw that, and I saw the importance of that in my own community.”
“There are lessons to be learned from what many would consider a tired old city,” Aranson said, pointing out that his native Steel City has reinvented itself to be a center of industry and innovation. “Atlanta has an opportunity to reinvent itself as well.”