For some, Jewishness is part of many things, big and small
On a recent morning, Katie Whitlatch helped bake and bag 25 dozen kosher cookies for the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry.
As she and other volunteers mixed 30 pounds of dough in the Poale Zedeck synagogue social hall in Squirrel Hill, they planned their part in an upcoming conference in New York for Lion of Judah, an international women's giving society.
Adding a charitable activity, like the cookie-baking, to a business meeting is a common approach to volunteerism in the Jewish community, says Whitlatch, of Highland Park, an attorney who now balances life as a stay-at-home mom to son Nate, 4, with performing mitzvahs, or good deeds.
At 33, Whitlatch has become one of the more prominent young philanthropists associated with Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, and is developing a national presence as well.
Recently, she was named by Jewish Federations of North America to chair Ritual and Judaica for the National Young Leadership Cabinet, a select group of 300 men and women, ages 30 to 45, who are developing their ability to guide and inspire others to tackle social issues, such as hunger and aging, in their communities.
In her new position, Whitlach will work with the cabinet on creative ways they and other young adults can incorporate Jewish values, rituals, and religious teachings in their daily lives.
“Young people tell me their biggest challenge is finding time to live a Jewish life,” Whitlatch says. “We want to show them it doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition.”
One key is to reach young Jews in ways that feel doable to them, she says. “It might be something like, if you're tailgating before a Pirates game, make sure you do the ha-motzi (blessing the bread).”
Small rituals like these can reinforce a connection to Judaism for folks who don't engage in more traditional practices, like cooking the Friday-night meal that begins the Sabbath or attending Saturday-morning services at a synagogue, Whitlatch says.
“Some Jews aren't interested in formalized religion, but they are interested in the teachings of the Torah, which is the foundation — the backdrop — of everything we do.”
According to the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion has continued to grow, with one-fifth of the U.S. public — and one-third of adults under 30 — religiously unaffiliated. Those are all-time highs in Pew polling.
Pew also found that while the number of Orthodox Jews has increased, 22 percent of U.S. Jews say they have no religion, and 32 percent of Jews ages 18 to 29 are unaffiliated. According to Pew, 62 percent of U.S. Jews say being Jewish is a matter of ancestry and culture more than religion.
“Generally speaking, synagogue membership is not a priority for young adults,” agrees Whitlatch. “But other programs are appealing.”
J-Burgh and Shalom Pittsburgh are two local networking groups that offer a range of activities, like happy hours, volunteer opportunities, Jewish holiday meals, and outings to sports events, for young singles and families.
Whitlatch is on the Shalom Pittsburgh board. She is also a board member of the Edward and Rose Berman Hillel Jewish University Center, an organization she says enriched her experience during her college and law-school years.
When Whitlatch became involved with Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Marlene Silverman, a seasoned volunteer, was her mentor.
“Katie's smart. She makes friends easily, and she's very creative,” says Silverman of Churchill. “When we first met, I told her, ‘Find something you feel passionate about and do it.' She has the ability to get others to buy into what she is doing.”
Whitlatch chairs a delegation of 13 local men and women elected to the national cabinet on the basis of their civic and financial contributions to Jewish communal life. Cabinet members commit to six years of leadership-capacity development.
“We try to choose people for who they are as leaders and what they will bring back to their communities,” says Sandy Schlenoff, associate director of cabinet and leadership development for Jewish Federations of North America. “Katie brings back a lot. She's enthusiastic, friendly and personable … the kind of person you want to follow.”
Whitlatch says the number of young adults donating to Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh is up, bucking the national average. But wherever it is done, giving today is a little different than in past generations, she says.
“Our parents and grandparents donated just ‘because.' Today, young people want to know what their money is going to.”
Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Meda.