Ready to teach in person and online, Rabbi Danny Schiff returns to Pittsburgh
Rabbi Danny Schiff, a Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh Foundation scholar, is back in town after a two-year absence due to COVID.
The Australian-born educator and rabbi typically spends half of each year in Pittsburgh and the other half in his adopted home of Israel, having made Aliyah in 2009.
Schiff has been a Pittsburgh Foundation Scholar since 2015 and has built a loyal following eager to attend his classes and other speaking engagements. Until the pandemic pause made travel nearly impossible, the rabbi taught in person to the Pittsburgh Jewish community. That changed two years ago.
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“I had never taught on Zoom before March 2020,” Schiff said. “We quickly got the whole program online and learned how to make it work.”
Schiff pointed to the popularity of two virtual classes as proof that the change was successful. He said the continuing legal education courses he teaches six times a year have drawn up to 100 people online. He also taught a course in memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who died in November 2020.
“We created a 20-session course that was fully subscribed with 40 attendees in 24 hours,” Schiff said, noting that a second 20-session course was offered and its virtual seats filled in 72 hours.
The pandemic, Schiff noted, has created a thirst for quality virtual learning, and by offering online courses, the Foundation has been able to reach more people than ever before. Ninety-five percent of those students, he said, were in Pittsburgh, but some were snowbirds who tuned in from somewhere warm or had heard about the classes in some other way.
“I think the online environment has actually enhanced what we’ve been able to do,” Schiff said.
COVID travel restrictions have largely eased, and Schiff said he plans to return to his usual routine of spending six months in Pittsburgh and six months in Israel. For now, however, more than 75% of the Foundation’s educational offerings will remain online.
“We want to address what the community wants to do with learning because I believe each modality has its pros and cons,” Schiff said. “From a pedagogical point of view, it’s stronger to learn together because of all that it brings. But if we engage many more people in adult learning because of the convenience of the online experience, then the net gain for Jewish learning is considerable.
While Schiff is happy to meet the educational needs of the community no matter where they are — in physical or virtual space — he also believes the future of Jewish life must also include in-person gathering.
“I think it’s important that in the realm of the synagogue and the community, especially when it comes to prayer, that we emphasize the physical and come together for those opportunities,” did he declare. “On the other hand, education and organization lends itself quite well to the online experience, and I think we’re going to see the predominant part of education happening more online than ever before.”
Andrea Chester took Schiff’s classes in person and virtually.
She first started taking classes to keep in touch with a friend who had taken some of the rabbi’s classes and told Chester how much she enjoyed them.
After the first class, Chester, who attends Shabbat services at various Chabad centers in Pittsburgh, said she was hooked.
“He’s very engaging,” she said of Schiff. “He respects different opinions. He asks questions. We study primary sources. I think the best testimony to how much people love his classes is that he attracts a crowd of diverse Jewish backgrounds.
For Chester, Schiff proved his worth as a teacher after the Tree of Life building massacre.
She was on a course scheduled to meet on Monday, October 29, just two days after the shooting. She said she and her classmates weren’t sure what would happen.
“Rabbi Schiff said, ‘This situation is so extraordinarily unusual that we’re not going to talk about the lesson today. We’ll talk about what you went through and how you felt,’ she recalled. “He’s not a sensitive person – he’s usually very learned and serious – but it was huge, and he knew we needed that space to talk.”
Chester said Schiff set the tone by telling the class that learning is what Jews do in response to everything — good in life and tragedy.
South Hills resident Paul Barkowitz began taking classes with the rabbi during the pandemic. He said the Federation offered some of the courses for free.
“I liken him to a drug dealer who gives away the first lesson for free,” Barkowitz said with a hint of humor in his voice. “I was hooked. It was fabulous.
Eventually Barkowitz, who had retired shortly before taking his first virtual class with Schiff, started paying for the classes. He said the courses he attended were his gateway into Federation life.
Barkowitz, who is a member of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, said Schiff’s classes are empowering in a positive way.
“He makes people think,” he said. “I always feel like I come out smarter than before. He asks questions, he probes a lot. He demands interactivity and it’s really high quality.
Janis Warren has a daughter who works for the Pittsburgh Federation. Warren lives in Maryland, so all of her experiences with Schiff have been online.
She said Schiff’s pedagogy makes up for the lack of common physical space.
“It really makes you feel like it’s a community,” Warren said. “I don’t know anyone else in the band, but he set it up [saying]”Even if you don’t know anyone at the start, you’ll know everyone by the end,” she said.
Like Barkowitz and Chester, Warren said she immediately recognized something unique about Schiff.
“I called my daughter after the first lesson and said, ‘I don’t know if I should say that because I only had a one-hour lesson with him, but I think he is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.'”
Ultimately, Schiff said, virtually or in person, his main question is the same: “How do we ensure that Jews are engaged in their Judaism in a way that can be called serious and that elicits engagement? ? PJC
David Rullo can be contacted at [email protected]