Jewish Studies Program takes look at Squirrel Hill

Jewish Studies Program takes look at Squirrel Hill

Murray Avenue circa 1937 and today.
Murray Avenue circa 1937 and today.

The Jewish Studies Program (JSP) at the University of Pittsburgh is kicking off a community/academic project to study the city’s only predominantly Jewish neighborhood.

JSP is launching the Squirrel Hill Project, an eight-part series of community and academic events taking a comprehensive look at the past, present and future of Squirrel Hill. Most of the activities, which will run from October through June, will be held in the neighborhood itself.  

The series begins Sunday, Oct. 14, when Barbara Burstin, a professor of history at Pitt, will present a free lecture, “When the Jews Met the Squirrels: Origins and Overview,” discussing the history of Jewish community in Squirrel Hill and its continuing role in Jewish culture here. The lecture begins at 6 p.m. that day at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.

For Adam Shear, director of JSP, the Squirrel Hill Project is a chance to get some answers to questions that have intrigued him since he came to Pittsburgh.

“Ever since I came to Squirrel Hill 10 years ago I’ve been wondering why this neighborhood is so different from other Jewish neighborhoods of its type,” said Shear, who is a member of the Chronicle’s board of trustees. “I am personally really excited about this project, because I’m hoping to finally get some answers from the scholars we bring in to look at the issues.”

Only one event will be on campus, Shear said. The rest will be in Squirrel Hill or elsewhere in the city.

“We wanted to get off the campus and bring it to the community,” he said.

In addition to Burstin’s opening lecture, here is the rest of the series:

• “Putting Pittsburgh on the Map of American Urban Jewish History,” Nov. 11 at the JCC;

• “Pittsburgh Jewish History Interactive Workshop at the Archives,” Dec. 2 at the Heinz History Center;

• “It’s All Very Pretty, but a Person Cannot Cry There: Jewish Anxieties over Suburbanization, 1945-1965,” Feb. 6 at the JCC;

• “Jews, Race and Twentieth Century Urban History,” Feb. 26, TBA;

• “Squirrel Hill and Jewish Pittsburgh by the Numbers,” April 14, TBA;

•  “Walking Tour of Squirrel Hill,” May 19, TBA; and

• “Roundtable Discussion: Past, Present and Future: Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh’s Jewish Community,” June 12 at the JCC.

For Shear, one highlight of the series will be the December interactive workshop at the Heinz, when students and professors — including Rauh curator Susan Melnick — will make presentations, an oral history project will be offered and an antique forum will showcase community artifacts from people’s attics and basements.

“I’ve been calling it ‘archives palooza,’ ” Shear said. “We want to present the treasures of the [Rauh] archives to people, but we want to make it interactive.”

Speaking of interactive, Shear said the JSP will also try to record all the presentations and make them available for podcasts, the idea being to draw expatriate Squirrel Hillers from all over the country into the series.

“There is a big Squirrel Hill disapora out there,” Shear said. “We’re recording each of the lectures — we’re planning to — then we’re going to create podcast videos and put them on our website, so if you’re in California and grew up in Squirrel Hill, you can tune in and see Barbara Burstin’s lecture.”

For years, Squirrel Hill was something of a rarity — an urban Jewish neighborhood at a time when Jews in other cities fled to the suburbs.  

Whatever the reason for Squirrel Hill’s survival as a Jewish enclave, it is still here at a time when city living is enjoying a renaissance.

“Cities are back,” Shear said. “Young people want to live in cities, so we’re ahead of the curve or were we so far behind the trend [that] now we’re trendy again?”

There was some urbanization of Jewish Pittsburgh in the 20th century, but it usually involved Jews living in Stanton Heights and other East End neighborhoods, and Beechview — not so much from Squirrel Hill.

That’s why Shear is also looking forward to the April 14 program when Christopher Briem, a regional economist at Pitt’s Center for Social and Urban Research; and Josh Donner, associate director for planning and funding at the Federation, will crunch the demographics of Squirrel Hill and identify community trends.

“They are the numbers guys,” Shear said, “and they are going to look into the numbers and find out what the trends are.”

Even though the project focuses on Squirrel Hill, Shear said one goal of the effort is to look at other local places where Jews lived and how they interacted with Squirrel Hill.

“We’re looking at Squirrel Hill as the center, but we would love to know the connection between Jews in Homestead and Jews in Squirrel Hill across the river. What was the flow? The same for Jews in McKeesport and Stanton Heights.”

The Squirrel Hill Project became possible with grants from the Giant Eagle Foundation, the Legacy Heritage Jewish Studies Project of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. The Agency for Jewish Learning, National Council of Jewish Women and the Rauh Jewish Archives also are partners in the project.

But it was that national AJS grant, worth $22,000, that put the project on the academic map, Shear said.

“We got plaudits for choosing something of local interest but of interest to American Jewish historians more broadly, and should be of interest to the American Jewish community more broadly.”

Want to go?

Visit for times, dates and venues of the program, or contact JSP at 412-624-2280 or

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at

read more: