A bit more about the Jewish Encyclopedia
The diversity of the donors shows the dynamism of the local Jewish community.
In this column in late November 2022, we considered a list of more than 200 people from Western Pennsylvania who donated to the original Jewish Encyclopedia in the early 1900s. Analyzing the list revealed a Jewish population just beginning to move away from the city center. Established families of Allegheny were moving to East End, and dozens of Jewish families were settling in certain small towns throughout the area.
There are a few other trends worth noting but only one for now.
The Jewish Encyclopedia was promoted broadly, not just within the Jewish world. The list of donors is ecumenical, containing all kinds of Jews and even many Christians.
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The central Jewish figure on the list is Dr. J. Leonard Levy, who led Rodef Shalom Congregation from 1901 until his death in 1917. He wrote a history of Pittsburgh for the encyclopedia, and he had relationships with many of the other financial donors.
Some of those relationships are easy to ascertain. The list includes many of the leading families of Rodef Shalom Congregation at that time, well-known names like Aaron, Cohen, Frank, Hamburger, Hast, Kaufmann, Kingsbacher, Sunstein and Weil.
But there are also lay leaders from other congregations: Marks Browarsky of Tree of Life Congregation, Adolph Edlis of Poale Zedeck Congregation, and Maurice Louis Avner, who would soon become one of the founders of Congregation Beth Shalom.
Rabbi Moshe Shimon Sivitz donated. He led Shaare Torah Congregation in the Hill District. He was the senior Orthodox rabbi in the region and an active voice against Reform. How he came to donate is unknown. Perhaps he was approached independently, or perhaps Dr. Levy approached him. They were occasionally brought together through communitywide speaking engagements, such as a mass meeting in 1905 to protest pogroms or a different meeting that year in support of the proposed Montefiore Hospital.
Rev. M. A. Alter and Rev. Saul Grafman donated. They were associate rabbis at Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, the oldest and largest Orthodox congregation in the city. Their relatively new-to-town superior Rabbi Aaron Mordechai Ashinsky is not on the list.
Rabbi Michael Fried donated. He was the first spiritual leader of Tree of Life Congregation to have been ordained by Jewish Theological Seminary. He was collegial with Dr. Levy. They both spoke at a memorial service for Dr. Lippman Mayer of Rodef Shalom in 1904, and soon they were both building big, beautiful synagogues at opposite ends of Oakland — Tree of Life on Craft Avenue, and Rodef Shalom on Fifth Avenue.
Rabbis throughout the region also donated. Rev. Jacob M. Bazel led Agudath Achim Congregation, an Orthodox congregation in Braddock. Rabbi Jacob Goldfarb led Beth Israel Congregation, an Orthodox congregation down in little Washington.
Rev. Isidor Reichert led Temple Israel, a Reform congregation in Uniontown. The year before Temple Israel was founded, Dr. Levy had been addressing a group of Reform Jews in Uniontown and overheard some people tossing around the idea of starting a congregation. As Jacob Feldman described the incident in “The Jewish Experience in Western Pennsylvania, A History: 1755-1945”: “When [Dr. Levy] came to the podium, the men were puffing their cigars and sipping coffee. He discarded his prepared speech and instead urged that a new congregation be organized ‘right then and there.’”
Dr. Levy spent years developing B’nai B’rith lodges in Braddock, Washington, Uniontown, and many others in the region. He was trying to create a mechanism outside the synagogue where Jews of different ideologies could come together productively.
The Jewish Encyclopedia list also includes Christian clergy.
Rev. John Price donated. He led St. James Catholic Church on the West End of Pittsburgh. Why did he support the Jewish Encyclopedia? I don’t know, but for years he wrote the “Question Box” column for a local Catholic paper “The Pittsburgh Observer,” and so he would have appreciated having a handy repository of religious knowledge.
Rev. S. Edward Young of the Second Presbyterian Church donated. Rodef Shalom sold its Eighth Street synagogue downtown to Second Presbyterian Church in 1904, as it prepared to relocate to its new home on Fifth Avenue. Second Presbyterian allowed Rodef Shalom to remain the building for three years, as construction proceeded.
Rev. Young and Dr. Levy became friends. They both spoke at the last Rodef Shalom service at the Eighth Street synagogue. In his remarks, Dr. Levy compared their friendship “to that which existed between Damon and Pythias.” Rev. Young cried.
“Interfaith relations” is a neutral term. They can be positive or negative. Maurice Ruben and Rev. A. R. Kuldell both donated. They were associated with the House of the New Covenant Mission to the Jews, which sought to convert local Jews to Christianity. PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at [email protected] or 412-454-6406.