An early history of Jewish Pittsburgh, and a hidden one
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HistoryThe original Jewish Encyclopedia from 1906

An early history of Jewish Pittsburgh, and a hidden one

A list of 116-year-old list of names reveals a community in transition

Advertisement for the Jewish Encyclopedia, published in the local Jewish Criterion in January 1906. Dr. J. Leonard Levy of Rodef Shalom Congregation was an important supporter of both publications. (Jewish Criterion, Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project)
Advertisement for the Jewish Encyclopedia, published in the local Jewish Criterion in January 1906. Dr. J. Leonard Levy of Rodef Shalom Congregation was an important supporter of both publications. (Jewish Criterion, Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project)

The original Jewish Encyclopedia from 1906 contains two histories of the Jewish community of western Pennsylvania. One is what you would expect. The other is a kaleidoscopic snapshot of Jewish life across this region at the precipice of great change.

The first can found in Volume 10, on page 63, under the H-less listing “Pittsburg.” It is credited to Dr. J. Leonard Levy of Rodef Shalom Congregation and Dr. Cyrus Adler of the American Jewish Historical Society. They begin with a disheartening caveat: “There are no reliable records of the beginnings of the Jewish community.”

From that unpromising point of departure, the authors chart the development of the local Jewish community over its first 60 years — from the pioneers in the 1840s to the immigrants who were arriving daily from Eastern Europe as it was being written.

With the benefit of nearly 120 years of archival preservation, we can now easily fact-check their work. Some of their assertions still stand tall, while other shrivel under the unsympathetic gaze of the primary source material available to us today. But that’s the nature of history. It’s only as accurate as the available sources, and sometimes less so.

To read the essay now, its greatest deficiency rests not with its facts but with its scope. It hangs tightly to the community elites. It only details two congregations — Rodef Shalom and Tree of Life — and relegates the dozen others in the city to a sentence. It ignores the growing regional community outside the city, and it collapses the Jewish communal structure into a list of prominent names and their prominent projects. And it fails to understand the tremendous changes underway in the community at that time.

The rest of the story comes at the end of the encyclopedia.

A section titled “Full List of Patrons” names everyone who contributed to the massive fundraising effort required to develop the Jewish Encyclopedia. Included on the list are more than 200 people and organizations from all across western Pennsylvania.

The list reveals a community in motion.

For example, almost 10% of the local contributors listed their home as Allegheny, Pennsylvania. There were roughly 25,000 Jews living in Pittsburgh at the turn of the 20th century. They were highly concentrated downtown, but a notable minority lived across Allegheny River. These were largely families who had arrived from Germany over the previous 50 years. They were more established than next generation of Jewish immigrants, and they were overwhelmingly affiliated with Rodef Shalom Congregation.

The Jewish Encyclopedia was published between 1901 and 1906, as this group was migrating to the East End. In the contributors’ list, Morris Kingsbacher listed his home as Allegheny, Pennsylvania, but the 1906 city directory places him on Northumberland Street. Within a year of the completion of the Jewish Encyclopedia, Rodef Shalom had relocated to its current address on Fifth Avenue. It was following its membership.

An even more dramatic migration was also underway. The urban Jews living in the twin cities of Pittsburgh and Allegheny accounted for 82% of the total Jewish population of western Pennsylvania in 1907. The other 18% were living in nearby small towns, and their numbers were growing even faster than those in the city.

Some of the towns on the list are expected: McKeesport, Altoona, Braddock. But the largest showing by far came from Bradford, Pennsylvania, up near the New York state line.

Bradford in the early 20th century was one of the older and larger Jewish communities in western Pennsylvania, propelled by the local oil economy. It even had a Jewish mayor, Joseph C. Greenwald. He’s on the contributor’s list. Another contributor was “A. Simon,” likely Abraham Hirsch Simon. His daughter Janet Simon Harris was a rising star in the National Council of Jewish Women. She would become its national president from 1913 to 1920 and later chaired its Foreign Relations Committee.

With minimal research, you can connect many of these small-town contributors back to Dr. Levy. “Country Jews,” as they were known, were increasingly a priority of the Reform movement. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations created a “circuit” work program in the 19th century to provide resources to these disparate Jews.

The program became the new Department of Synagogue and School Extension in 1904. Dr. Levy was later appointed supervisor over District 7, covering the half of Pennsylvania “west of a line drawn north and south through Harrisburg.” His work led to the formation of new B’nai B’rith lodges and synagogues and eventually spawned the pioneering Southwestern District of Pennsylvania Jewish Religious Schools Program.

While the small towns accounted for a fifth of the regional Jewish population, they accounted for almost a quarter of the local contributors to the Jewish Encyclopedia.

That small but notable imbalance is significant. The small-town Jews were merchants, not laborers, and they were generally better off economically than their urban counterparts. As such, they soon became an important source of communal fundraising.

As Dr. Levy was going around soliciting donations for the Jewish Encyclopedia, his colleague Rabbi Aaron Mordechai Ashinsky was doing the same thing for the new Jewish Home for the Aged, which also opened in 1906. These two Jewish leaders were creating a fundraising template that would remain important for more than 50 years.

Coming soon: Some of the names on the list. PJC

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at rjarchives@heinzhistorycenter.org or 412-454-6406.

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