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Pittsburgh region's Jewish population is growing, prosperous and moving to suburbs, study finds

Bob Bauder
| Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, 5:00 p.m.
Cousins Lois Smolovitz (L) and Ruth Fineberg have lived in Pittsburgh their entire lives and have no plans to move. “I don’t know anything else,” Fineberg said.
Bob Bauder | Tribune-Review
Cousins Lois Smolovitz (L) and Ruth Fineberg have lived in Pittsburgh their entire lives and have no plans to move. “I don’t know anything else,” Fineberg said.

Lois Smolovitz, 90, and Ruth Fineberg, 89, grew up in Pittsburgh, raised families here and have no plans of leaving anytime soon.

The Squirrel Hill cousins are bucking a trend whereby Pittsburgh's Jewish population is growing, but a growing number of older residents are choosing to live in suburbs as opposed to within city limits, according to a study released Tuesday by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

“I don't know anything else,” Fineberg said of living in Pittsburgh.

According to the study, the Jewish population in the region including Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland Counties has grown by 17 percent from 2005 to 2016. The region is home to 49,200 Jews, who make up 2 percent of the region's total population.

Twenty-six percent live in Squirrel Hill — traditionally the Jewish population center — with 31 percent living in other city neighborhoods. The rest live in the South Hills (20 percent), North Hills (9 percent) and throughout the remaining region (14 percent).

More than half (55 percent) of adults ages 50-64 live outside city limits, compared with 37 percent of ages 35-49 and 33 percent of ages 18-34.

“Younger adults and families are more prevalent in the city, and older adults reside in greater numbers in the suburbs and outlying areas,” the study said.

That was good news for Sammy Balyasny, 16, of Greenfield, who said his age group at his synagogue has grown.

“It wasn't like that when I was younger,” he said. “There was no one for me to interact with, to hang out with and to talk with, share fresh ideas with. Now it's very great that we have people to interact with your age.”

Leonard Saxe of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, one of the study's authors, said one of his biggest surprises was the level of engagement in religious and cultural activities including synagogues, Jewish organizations, schools and charitable giving.

He was also surprised that Jewish residents in the area are concentrated in one neighborhood, Squirrel Hill. That doesn't happen in other areas of the country, he said.

According to the study, 76 percent of Jewish children are being raised Jewish through religion or culture, 59 percent of adults have visited or lived in Israel, 39 percent of adults have served as a volunteer in some activity and 93 percent of adults made charitable donations.

“I think a lot of Jews think that it is an expression of their Jewish identity even if they're not giving to Jewish causes,” said Janet Krasner Aronson, a co-author of the study. “Just giving to charity is valued culturally by a lot of Jews.”

Matthew Boxer, the study's lead author, said charitable giving is related to Jewish beliefs and the prosperity of residents.

Thirty-three percent of Pittsburgh-area Jews consider themselves prosperous or very comfortable, and 45 percent report living reasonably comfortably. The remaining 22 percent describe themselves as just getting by or poor.

Mayor Bill Peduto said the study will help officials market Pittsburgh as a welcoming city and make decisions about programs for those in lower income brackets.

“There's very few areas of America where you have such a strong Jewish community that is centralized in city neighborhoods. That distinct character is a part the fabric of Pittsburgh. If you're Jewish and you're looking for a city around the country, this study helps to show there is a very welcoming home for you here.”

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312, or via Twitter @bobbauder.

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