The Western Pennsylvania Auxiliary for Exceptional People advocated for Jewish people with intellectual disabilities living at state-run institutions and at group homes in Western Pennsylvania. The organization made personal visits, provided religious services and training, and hosted communitywide gatherings.
Rabbi Leib Heber came to Western Pennsylvania in the early 1970s to work at Tree of Life Congregation in Ellwood City. With the start of a new state-sponsored Jewish chaplaincy program around 1972, Rabbi Heber left his pulpit to assume the new post. He eventually worked with individuals at 14 state-run institutions throughout Western Pennsylvania: Allegheny Valley Junior School, Allegheny Valley Senior School, Altoona Center, Cresson State Hospital, Dixmont State Hospital, Ebensburg Center, Highland Center, Industrial Reformatory at Huntingdon, Marcy Habilitation Center, Polk Center, Robinson Development Center, Torrance State Hospital, Warren State Hospital, and Western Center. By 1976, he was visiting 312 individuals at these institutions on a weekly basis. Visits included religious services, companionship, and kosher meals consisting of salami sandwiches, cookies, and bananas prepared by his wife, Rebbetzin Pearl Heber. Rabbi Heber also conducted High Holiday, Passover, Chanukah and other Jewish holiday services for individuals at these institutions.
In addition to site visits, Rabbi Heber pursued a “normalization” policy designed to integrate people with intellectual and developmental disabilities into the broader Jewish community. Among his efforts, he organized a group b’nai mitzvah ceremony in 1974 at Congregation Beth Shalom and a community banquet at the William Penn Hotel in 1977.
Looking to secure funding and volunteer support for his work, Rabbi Heber asked Natalie Berez in early 1976 to help form the Ladies Auxiliary for Exceptional People. The organization was chartered later that year as the Western Pennsylvania Auxiliary for Exceptional People with a mission to “provide and promote social interchange between institutionalized exceptional persons of the Jewish faith and the general Jewish community; to foster religious observance of such persons, including but not limited to providing kosher food, training for participation in religious services, instruction in the Hebrew language, and observance of holidays and festival by such persons both within their respective institutions and in the synagogues of the general community; and Generally to encourage and improve the morale and spiritual well being of such persons.”Western Pennsylvania Auxiliary for Exceptional People incorporation, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 2, 1976 (online—Newspapers.com). Some of the longstanding volunteers of the Western Pennsylvania Auxiliary for Exceptional People included Bernice Elinoff, Marian Hershman, and Samuel Shear.
Following the death of Rabbi Heber in 1988, Rabbi Moshe Goldblum of Congregation Beth Shalom and later Rabbi Eli Seidman of the Jewish Association on Aging were chaplains for the Western Pennsylvania Auxiliary for Exceptional People. The organization was still providing services into the early 21st century.