Faith, Race, Place” explores how Pittsburgh’s fragmented religious landscape came to be and how historical divides are being confronted in the present day.

The history of Pittsburgh Judaism is often told as a line between two points: Pittsburgh Jews started off in the late 1800s in the Hill District — a center of industry that was conveniently close to the train station for arriving immigrants — and, by the 1950s, they ended up in Squirrel Hill.

For Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center, that left a lot of unanswered questions:

Why did the first person leave? Did they feel disconnected from their community? What did the move mean for Orthodox Jews, who, for religious reasons, must walk to their synagogues?

As an archivist, Lidji began searching historical documents — newspapers, statistical reports, congregational records and family holdings —  for answers. He spoke with PublicSource about a key missing piece of the puzzle and how it has shaped the character of Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh Judaism ever since.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: You’ve said Pittsburgh Jewish history is often oversimplified. What’s something that gets left out?

A: The geographic diversity is something that I don’t feel like people fully embrace. [In the early 1900s], Pittsburgh was the most regionally diverse Jewish population in the country. 

The Hill District is a rare Jewish neighborhood, so it often draws the focus away. But you can’t understand the Jewish experience in Pittsburgh in the 20th century unless you’re looking regionally, looking at the full Western Pennsylvania experience.

Just one statistic that I think highlights that: In 1937, if you look at the Jewish population of Northeast Ohio around Cleveland, Cleveland accounts for about 90% of the Jewish population in that region. So 90% of the Jews live in Cleveland; 10% live in small towns around Cleveland.

In Pittsburgh, it’s closer to 60 — 60% of the Jews live in Pittsburgh, and 40% live outside. The fact that so many people are in different places, it just naturally has an impact on everything: on how money is spent, on how families are spread out, on how business is conducted, on how philanthropy is conducted. 

Q: You mentioned the “Hill to Hill” story of Pittsburgh Judaism. Is that a myth? Where did that narrative come from?

A: It’s not like the story is wrong. More or less, the center of Jewish Pittsburgh did move from the Hill District to Squirrel Hill. But to say that 20,000 people upped and moved to a new neighborhood is not how it happened. 

It’s more like the 1920s was this period where Jews were living in an incredibly diverse geographic area. It covered all of Pittsburgh and all of Allegheny County and all of Western Pennsylvania. 

You have congregations in the Strip District, in Lawrenceville, in Homewood, in Hazelwood, on the North Side. There’s a budding South Side community. By the 1920s, there were 15 or 16 different neighborhoods with congregations in Pittsburgh. Every part of Pittsburgh had a Jewish community in it — with an institution, not just people.

Squirrel Hill ended that. Over a period of maybe 10 or 15 years, many of those small neighborhood congregations consolidated into Squirrel Hill.

It may be that all those Hill District people eventually end up in Squirrel Hill. But, in the interim, it was a very dynamic period, where you see people living their communal lives in three or four neighborhoods simultaneously, where the center of gravity has not been fixed yet. It’s not really until the ’40s that it starts to lock in to what it became.

The Irene Kaufmann Settlement House offered evening classes to immigrants in the 1920s Hill District. (Photo courtesy of the United Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh Photographs, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center)

Q: How did the geographic diversity of Jews in the 1920s shape Pittsburgh Judaism going forward? 

A: I think that part of the reason Squirrel Hill is the way it is, is because of that regional focus. 

If you have one big congregation, it’s the same 100 people that have to be involved. If you have 100 congregations, like in Western Pennsylvania, there’s more people who understand the mechanics of what it takes to keep a community going. 

A lot of the energy of Squirrel Hill throughout the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s comes from the fact that people who grew up in these smaller places came and brought that knowledge with them. You get an incredible density of people who understand what it takes to keep a community going.

Another thing, and this is starting to disappear a little bit, is that you had families that would spread out across the region. It makes sense. Somebody emigrates, they start a business, they have four children, the business cannot support four children, so the father and the mother give each of them enough to kind of go to another town and start the same business.

As the consolidation happens, you get this interesting thing where families have a lot of different religious observances, a lot of different ideas about Judaism. 

And there’s a kind of moderating impulse to it. Like, if you and I weren’t related, I may never have a reason to talk to you. And I may therefore never have a reason to know anything about your congregation. 

But because we are related, I do know about you. And I do know about your congregation. And even though it’s not mine, I’m sort of forced to accept it at some level.

The reason the community was able to come together the way it did after Tree of Life was because of those personal family connections. They were able to hop across boundaries in a way that other communities would not be able to do.

Chris Hedlin is PublicSource’s faith and religion reporter. She can be reached at chris@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ChristineHedlin

This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.

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Chris Hedlin

Chris Hedlin is a reporter for PublicSource focusing on religion. She comes to PublicSource through the American Council of Learned Societies’ Leading Edge Fellowship program, which pairs scholars of...