Rabbi Mordy Rudolph, co-founder and executive director of The Friendship Circle, stands outside The Beacon in Squirrel Hill. Photo by John Beale.

A massacre that killed 11 people in 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill hit the Pittsburgh neighborhood hard.

Abby Blank, 18, of Highland Park, was an eighth-grader at the time and an active participant at Friendship Circle, a Squirrel Hill organization that provides activities to connect people with a range of abilities and special needs to others in the community. 

As she grappled with the shooting deaths and worldwide media attention thrust on her city, Abby says Friendship Circle provided a calm consistency in its youth programming. 

“They were mostly reassuring that our community is strong and … the Jewish community isn’t going anywhere and Pittsburgh isn’t going anywhere,” she says. 

“It was challenging but we made it through and we’re still making it through.”

Corey Oliver, left, and Andrew Guttman, right, water plants on the rooftop of Friendship Circle in Squirrel Hill. Photo by John Beale.

Plans for The Beacon

Five years later, as she prepares to graduate from Allderdice High School, Abby is co-president of Friendship Circle’s teen leadership board, which has played an integral role in planning and designing The Beacon, a new 2,000-square-foot space affiliated with Friendship Circle that will focus on teen wellness. 

Located next door to the headquarters of its parent organization at 1926 Murray Ave., The Beacon will be open to high school students throughout the Pittsburgh region and individuals of all faiths. 

Programming will include open mic nights featuring poetry and music, podcast discussion groups similar to book clubs, nutrition classes, wellness fairs, yoga, creative arts, mindfulness, animal therapy, gardening and coping with social media.

All programs are free. 

Set to open fully at the start of the 2023-24 school year,  some programs will be offered at The Beacon and off-site this summer. 

Though the community space hopes to expand its reach to teens around the region, The Beacon is not a walk-in venue; individuals must sign up to participate

An open house will be held on Tuesday, May 16, from 3 to 7 p.m.

From left, Rabbi Mordy Rudolph, Rivkee Rudolph and Kaitlin Hens-Greco worked with students to create The Beacon, a community space with a focus on uplifting and supporting the well-being and mental health of teens in high school. Photo by John Beale.

Providing emotional support

“In recent years, teens have needed more emotional support,” says Rivkee Rudolph, a former preschool teacher who co-founded the nonprofit Friendship Circle in 2006 with her husband, Rabbi Mordy Rudolph. 

Following the Tree of Life attack, teens’ struggles “became more noticeable,” she says. “So many … felt vulnerable.” 

A recent advisory from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy focuses on the negative impacts of loneliness and calls for Americans to forge more personal and social connections. 

Last year, the surgeon general issued a report on the mental health of youth in which he suggested community organizations address the mental health needs of young people.

To that end, The Beacon’s programming will be “focused on strengthening teens’ emotional coping skills … and providing a space where they feel they can show up,” says Kaitlin Hens-Greco, clinical director for The Beacon.

Participants at The Beacon can be referred for therapy and other professional support it doesn’t offer. 

Emily Vogt, a staff member at Friendship Circle, works in the facility’s great room in Squirrel Hill. Photo by John Beale.

Impact of the pandemic

The staff of Friendship Circle began talking about creating a teen center before the Covid pandemic struck. 

“We went virtual and staff had an ear to the ground on how the pandemic affected teens,” says Rivkee Rudolph. 

What they learned: teens have a bleak sense of the world around them; there’s a disconnect between them and grownups in their lives; and many suffered social anxiety when pandemic restrictions eased and society got back together masked and in-person, says Rivkee Rudolph.

So Friendship Circle turned to its teen leaders and teen wellness committee to establish a mission statement, create a logo and collaborate with architects and designers on The Beacon.

Friendship Circle, located along Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill, is launching The Beacon, a community space with a focus on uplifting and supporting the well-being and mental health of teens in high school. Photo by John Beale.

Friendship Circle

Friendship Circle operates in a property it bought in 2017 that was formerly Gullifty’s restaurant and before that a movie theater. 

Its annual budget is $1.5 million and its staff totals about 18 full- and part-time employees, says Mordy Rudolph.

In 2017, the organization acquired the structure next door and renovations began earlier this year. 

Costs to buy and renovate The Beacon space total $3.5 million and major funders include the Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust, Jack Buncher Foundation, Allegheny Foundation, Smart Foundation and Charles M. Morris Charitable Trust. 

The kitchen area of The Beacon in Squirrel Hill. Photo by John Beale.

“Calming elements”

The Beacon has a separate, secure entrance and incorporates features that are fully accessible for people with all levels of needs. 

When they check in, teens will state their intention by selecting a word that describes how they feel that day. 

Choices such as “lonely,” “connected” and “worried” span a range of emotions and aim to ease anxieties and affirm that “good mental health can be not feeling good all the time,” says Hens-Greco. 

The space includes a sensory room, colorful bubble tanks and curved walls — all meant to be “calming elements,” says Rivkee Rudolph. 

A kitchen will be used for cooking and nutrition exercises; a gathering space filled with natural light has couches, large bean bag floor pillows, movable tables and a digital screen.

Teens can also access Friendship Circle’s rooftop deck, which features bright teal and purple fencing, plants, tables, chairs and outdoor heaters. 

Architects, designers and contractors for The Beacon include Perfido Weiskopf Wagstaff + Goettel, Kolano Design, F.J. Busse Co. and Snoezelen.

Ursula Brown, 18, a senior at Allderdice High School, is co-president of Friendship Circle’s teen leadership board, chair of its teen wellness committee and was among those who participated in design meetings.

“It’s very important to have a space where you can go and feel comfortable … just go and be and check in on yourself,” says the Squirrel Hill resident. 

While teens typically show up at Friendship Circle for structured and timed events, she says, The Beacon “won’t be as scheduled.”

“You can go on your own time to self-reflect. There are kind and good listeners there. Sometimes people just need someone to listen.”

Joyce Gannon is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.