Allen Cousin, who turns 90 later this month, remembers attending Hebrew School at the old Tree of Life building on Craft Avenue and celebrating his bar mitzvah there.
Awaiting the opening of a time capsule that was enshrined in that building’s cornerstone in 1906, Cousin was “very excited” to see what was contained within it.
“It’s been a long time,” he said.
In fact, it’s been 68 years since Tree of Life held services in the Craft Avenue building, now demolished after having been repurposed into a theater space used by the Pittsburgh Playhouse beginning in 1951.
Tree of Life was founded as a break-away group from Rodef Shalom Congregation in 1864. The original 16 members held services in people’s homes and other locations until Tree of Life bought space downtown in 1883. By 1906, the congregation had outgrown its downtown space, and began construction on a new building on Craft Avenue in Oakland.
In 1951, Tree of Life sold the Craft Avenue property to the Pittsburgh Playhouse, and moved to its current location at the corner of Wilkins and Shady Avenues. The Pittsburgh Playhouse — which has been affiliated with Point Park University since 1968 — was located at the Craft Avenue site until 2018, when it moved to new digs on Forbes Avenue downtown. Point Park is now planning to sell the Oakland property.
The Tree of Life cornerstone was opened at the demolition site on Nov. 4, to the keen anticipation of several Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha members present as well as Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, Executive Director Barb Feige and Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives.
Lidji donned gloves before gingerly removing the items from the weathered tin box that served as the time capsule. Several items that were in the box, such as a souvenir booklet of a B’nai B’rith outing and copies of the Jewish Criterion — a predecessor to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle — were frayed, crumbly and yellowed. That those items were in the box was not a surprise, thanks to newspaper accounts of the original cornerstone ceremony published in August 1906 in the Criterion and the Pittsburgh Daily Post.
But other items found in the time capsule were unexpected: aliyah cards that were used to call people to the Torah; a luach, which is a book containing the Jewish calendar; business cards presumably thrown into the box at the last minute by Tree of Life members at the cornerstone ceremony. And a small Heinz pickle pin.
“I’m giddy,” said Feige. “I find it very exciting. The pickle is fabulous, an ingenious and creative way to incorporate Pittsburgh into the time capsule.”
Lidji will be examining and documenting the items, then Tree of Life leadership will determine where each item should be housed. The cornerstone itself may be incorporated as part of the congregation’s history in a renovated Tree of Life building at the Wilkins and Shady location.
“It’s quite thrilling to see the paper materials, the cards to call people to the Torah, and to know our forebears handled them and touched them, and that they were a vibrant part of an active congregation,” said historian Laurie Eisenberg, a board member of Tree of Life whose family has been affiliated with the congregation for three generations.
As Tree of Life — one of three congregations attacked by an anti-Semite on Oct. 27, 2018 — is moving ahead “in perpetuating a vibrant congregation,” Eisenberg said she is looking forward to incorporating the cornerstone and time capsule “into our history as we move forward and build.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at