Chabad of Squirrel Hill gets a $2 million makeover
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RenovationWork expected to be completed by the High Holidays

Chabad of Squirrel Hill gets a $2 million makeover

"The idea is to modernize the building, make it a fresh space for Chabad." — Rabbi Yisroel Altein

Rendering of exterior (Image courtesy of Chabad of Squirrel Hill)
Rendering of exterior (Image courtesy of Chabad of Squirrel Hill)

Contractors are hard at work on a $2 million renovation project slated to modernize and provide a much-needed facelift to Chabad of Squirrel Hill’s building on the corner of Forbes Avenue and Beechwood Boulevard.

The project, which began in late 2023, strips much of the inside of the early 1900s-era building down to its studs, said Rabbi Yisroel Altein, co-director of Chabad of Squirrel Hill. The contractor plans to build an entirely new front entrance, expand the social hall, beautify the synagogue and renovate office and classroom space on the brick-faced building’s second and third floors.

Key features of the renovated site will include a new ark facing Jerusalem and a dramatic design feature where “rays of light” — essentially parts of the ceiling structure — burst out from a modern chandelier whose LED lights resemble clustered stars.

“The idea is to modernize the building, make it a fresh space for Chabad,” Altein said. “After COVID-19 and all, we’re back in full swing — and it’s time to make this space beautiful, useful and inviting,” he said.

Once a Squirrel Hill mansion owned by a U.S. Steel executive, the building at 1700 Beechwood Blvd. housed New Light Congregation from 1957 — when that congregation left the Hill District — until 2016 when it moved to a rented space at the Tree of Life building on Wilkins and Shady avenues.

Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh bought the site on Dec. 15, 2017, for $700,000, Allegheny County property records show. The Orthodox Jewish day school, then facing waiting lists at its early learning center and girls’ high school, planned to use the new building to “expand on our tight spaces,” Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, then the schools’ dean, told the Chronicle in 2017.

“We needed space for the short term and the long term,” Rosenfeld said.

Then, the pandemic hit and expansion plans were briefly tabled. Chabad of Squirrel Hill, however, began using the space. That group bought the building from Yeshiva Schools on Aug. 25, 2021.

Yeshiva Schools focused on growing elsewhere. In June of 2021, it bought a 70,000-square-foot property at the St. Rosalia site in Greenfield. Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, the schools’ CEO, said that the purchase was “linked to the broader strategic plan.”

One of the site’s two Greenfield Avenue buildings measures almost 50,000 square feet and lends ample space to educate the roughly 200 boys enrolled in Yeshiva’s elementary and high schools, as well as housing 50 to 60 out-of-town high school students, Rosenblum said.

Chabad, in the meantime, got familiar with the old New Light space, holding services and community meals, and working out of its office and kitchen.

“We’ve used this space — we know what we need and we know how it’s done,” Altein said. “The planning took longer than I really wanted. But, when the trucks came and they got started, it was exciting.”

Rendering of interior (Image courtesy of Chabad of Squirrel Hill)
Certain features of the new building could be eye-popping — from the ceiling fixtures emanating from a chandelier hanging from the synagogue’s 15-foot-tall ceiling to the new entranceway, a bold metal-and-glass enclosure with expanded steps and ramps.

Double doors at the new entrance also will provide for improved security, Altein said.

The renovation project is being done in two phases, Altein said. After work is complete in the social hall, Chabad will move its operations there and then contractors will work on the synagogue side of the building. The group might erect a tent outside in warmer months if services or events call for additional space.

Altein said he hopes all work will be wrapped up by the High Holidays.

Jed Cohen has attended Chabad services with his family in Squirrel Hill for about 12 years. A project manager by day who’s friendly with Altein, Cohen said he couldn’t help but lend a hand on the project.

Cohen said he handled the Request for Proposals and helped interview contractors, eventually negotiating the deal with the Pittsburgh firm G6 Builders. Since work started, he’s assisted with permit issues and tracking the construction process.

In addition to G6, Chabad of Squirrel Hill has worked on the project with Indovina Associates Architects, a Strip District-based firm that designed the renovation work.

Cohen feels the existing building, where he started attending Chabad events near the end of the pandemic, “was very dated.” He’s excited that details like the 1970s- or ’80s-era stained glass windows will be replaced by the sun-ray chandelier, a new ark and a new entrance.

“It should be beautiful,” he said. “It will just be a much more user-friendly building.”

Cohen feels the timing to expand Chabad’s physical footprint is important. A recent Passover seder hosted by Chabad drew some 200 participants.

Growing antisemitism in the U.S. and the events of Oct. 7 in Israel also resonate for Cohen.

“For me, it’s important to have a building that will stand for my children and grandchildren,” he said. “Now, more than ever, we need to ensure we have these institutions that are family-affirming and family-enriching.” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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