New director advocates for Jewish community in Pittsburgh

| Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, 9:22 p.m.

Gregg Roman is used to rushing from one place to another.

As an Israeli soldier in the city of Sderot, he ran from house to house, dodging Hamas-fired rockets as he distributed beepers to alert people to attacks.

The city, less than two miles from the border in Gaza, had come under repeated attacks. When a rocket was fired, people had little more than 15 seconds to take cover.

“That's how they live. ... Kids who were born in 2001, their entire life, they only know rockets falling on them,” Roman said.

As new director of the Community Relations Council at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, he visited 90 neighborhoods and 130 municipalities, attending 120 meetings in the past 10 weeks.

The federation, founded in 1912, coordinates a wide range of programs locally, in Israel and around the world to address Jewish needs in health, education and social welfare.

“I will go through as many tunnels and over as many bridges as I have to,” said Roman, a “Star Wars” fan who also likes hunting and fishing.

Roman was hired to expand the federation's outreach, officials said. More than 42,000 Jews lived in Pittsburgh in 2010, according to the North American Jewish Data Bank at the University of Connecticut.

“I'm exhausted listening to him sometimes,” said Skip Grinberg, lay chairman of the Community Relations Council. “It's been great fun. ... I think he's an asset to the city.”

The local Jewish community gained population during the past five years, said Aaron Weil, executive director of Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh.

“The No. 1 (Jewish) demographic coming to the city right now is 25- to 35-year-olds,” Weil said.

At 27, Roman fits right in. He and his wife, Anat, 33, live in Edgewood with daughter Ariel, 8 months.

Roman, who grew up in Bucks County, describes himself as a policy wonk. “I like watching the national discourse. I'm a sucker for ‘Meet The Press.' ”

He attended American University in Washington before going to Israel in 2006, where he worked as a firefighter, soldier, political adviser and commentator on Al Jazeera television. Before accepting the post in Pittsburgh, he was director of development for the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel.

It's not unusual for American Jews to serve in the Israeli army, Roman and others said. Such service usually doesn't cause loss of U.S. citizenship if there's no intent to relinquish it, a State Department representative said.

The past six years had some bumps, Roman said.

He was in two wars — the 2006 war with Lebanon and the Israel/Hamas conflict of 2008 — and felt the impact of two natural disasters.

In 2010, he was part of the response team at a deadly forest fire on Mt. Carmel, Israel, that killed 48 and destroyed four towns. Last year, Superstorm Sandy claimed the family's possessions during their move here.

The forest fire destroyed “areas where Christ walked ... Christian sites, Muslim sites, Jewish sites,” he said.

Arriving in Pittsburgh, the Romans learned most of their possessions had been lost to the hurricane.

“I had a container full of goods we shipped from Israel. ... All our clothing, all the baby's toys, all our furniture — the hurricane destroyed the container,” Roman said. Yet, he believes, “from adversity comes opportunity.”

People in Pittsburgh stepped up to help. “The amount of phone calls and help that I got within 48 hours — I said, ‘Wow, this is a really strong community.' ”

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or

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