“Faith, Race, Place” explores how Pittsburgh’s fragmented religious landscape came to be and how historical divides are being confronted in the present day.
For about 10 years in the early 1900s, Rodef Shalom had a swimming pool.
It was a somewhat common feature in large, well-to-do American synagogues at the time, Rodef Shalom archivist Martha Berg said. Jews were looking for their houses of worship functionally to serve as community centers, too. (One historian has called it the “shul with a pool” trend, a shul being another name for a synagogue.)
Its existence said a lot about the social dynamics shaping Pittsburgh Judaism.
For one thing, Rodef Shalom got its pool because Jews in the early 1900s weren’t allowed to use the pool at the neighboring YMCA.
Although Pittsburgh Jews sometimes suffered blatant acts of antisemitism, historian Barbara Burstin said, more common was this kind of “cold, gentle discrimination.” Excluded from dominant spaces, they had no choice but to build parallel enterprises — in business and recreation.
But Rodef Shalom also had a pool because it had wealthy members who could afford to donate it. In that sense, the pool speaks to social hierarchies within Pittsburgh Judaism. And within Pittsburgh Judaism, Rodef was a force to be reckoned with.
“It’s hard to overstate how powerful and important it was,” said Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. “Its leaders were the leaders of every major Jewish organization in town.”
Ethnicity played a role in that, although not a simple one, Lidji cautions. Pittsburgh’s earliest Jews were largely German. When they founded Rodef Shalom in 1856, it was a German Jewish congregation.
In the 1880s through the early 1900s, Pittsburgh Judaism diversified. Jobs in the burgeoning steel industry brought a flood of Eastern European immigrants.
On the whole, Eastern European Jews tended to be poorer and less educated than the German Jewish immigrants of the previous generations, Burstin said. They also tended to be more Orthodox (strictly observant of traditional beliefs and practices) and Zionist (supportive of having a Jewish nation or state — eventually leading to the modern state of Israel forming).
They were also simply new. By 1900, some German Jewish families had been in Pittsburgh for 40, 50, even 60 years, Lidji said. The Eastern Europeans did not have those cultural footholds.
The resulting rifts and resentments meant that the Eastern Europeans, much like the Germans, created their own enterprises, paralleling not only the dominant white Protestant culture but also German Jewish ones.
The Eastern European Jews didn’t have an equivalent of Rodef Shalom, Lidji said. For one thing, they wouldn’t have been able to afford it. But also, religiously, it wouldn’t have made sense. Many Eastern Europeans were Orthodox, and Orthodox Jews don’t drive on the Sabbath. These communities were more likely to create small neighborhood synagogues — the kind you still see dotting the landscape of Squirrel Hill.
Rodef Shalom’s current building was completed in 1907. Although originally the congregation was mostly of German descent, it has since diversified. (Photos courtesy of the Rodef Shalom Congregation Archives)
These days, no one thinks of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community in terms of German versus Eastern European, Burstin said. As Lidji explained, the lines began disintegrating after World War II.
Still, knowledge of the past matters, Burstin argued. Some of the threats faced today — antisemitism from the outside or apathy from the inside — are issues Pittsburgh’s Jewish community has struggled with for a long time.
Knowing history also encourages resilience in the face of new challenges, she said, like security concerns congregations have faced since the Tree of Life massacre in October 2018.
“We have faced difficulties before and have overcome.”
Clarification: A previous version of this story dated Rodef Shalom’s founding to the first synagogue’s construction, which began in 1861. The congregation approved its constitution in 1856 and obtained its charter in 1859, according to Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center.
This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.
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