Rodef Shalom Congregation is steps away from being enshrined as an integral part of Pittsburgh’s history.
Legislation recognizing the Reform temple’s historic designation — potentially the first in the city dedicated to a Jewish place of worship — passed a standing committee of Pittsburgh City Council on May 25, and is up for a full council vote this week. After that, if it passes muster, it will be sent to Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey for signing.
“It’s had a lot of different steps along the way,” said Matthew Falcone, president of Rodef Shalom’s board of trustees, and an ardent supporter of the designation process. “There were several commissions — the historic review commission and the planning commission — then city council, then the mayor’s office.”
“There’s always been this connection to how Rodef Shalom’s history ties into Pittsburgh’s collective history,” he added. “The process has been amazing.”
Rodef Shalom officials, during the congregation’s 165th anniversary in November 2021, submitted a 70-page application to the City of Pittsburgh seeking the designation as a historic city landmark. The designation sought to affirm the temple’s importance in the growth and fabric of the Steel City and protect the site from ill-intended changes or redevelopment.
Rodef Shalom, which is considered the oldest and largest synagogue in western Pennsylvania, grew in jumps and starts over many years.
In 1847, 12 Jewish immigrants formed a burial society to establish a Jewish cemetery on Troy Hill, according to the congregation’s historic designation paperwork. The next year, the group began meeting in a rented room for religious services as the Orthodox Shaare Shamayim congregation.
In 1855, the membership of Shaare Shamayim split, and Rodef Shalom, or “the pursuer of peace,” arose. The German congregation’s first home was a rented hall on St. Clair Street in the city of Allegheny in 1859. Shaare Shamayim merged back with Rodef Shalom in 1860 when the latter congregation started a day school and bought property on Eighth Street in downtown Pittsburgh. At that building’s dedication in 1862, it was the only synagogue in western Pennsylvania.
Rodef Shalom soon established itself as a leader among some American congregations in the transition from Orthodox to Reform Judaism. In 1863, a majority of Rodef Shalom’s congregation voted to realign its practices with Reform Judaism: Services were shortened, women were permitted to sit with men in the sanctuary, men were not required to wear yarmulkes or prayer shawls and an organ was introduced to accompany traditional songs.
In 1885, the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Lippman Mayer, hosted a national convention of like-minded rabbis that led to the Pittsburgh Platform. “It held that Judaism was a religion, not a nation; that the Bible was an ethical guide, not the infallible word of God; and that American Jews need not keep kosher,” according to the application for historic landmark designation. The Pittsburgh Platform guided Reform Judaism until 1937, when the movement adopted a different platform.
Since the 1970s, Rodef Shalom’s building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Researchers Jeff Slack and Angelique Bamberg, Cornell University alums who worked together on the historic designation application for several months, said the national designation is almost entirely honorific.
Slack worked on researching Rodef Shalom’s architecture and design, looking for “character-defining features that allow us to see and understand the significance of the property,” he said. Bamberg focused more on the congregation’s social and cultural history.
Pittsburgh City Councilperson Erika Strassburger, whose district includes Rodef Shalom, spoke on the congregation’s behalf at a recent hearing.
“Rodef Shalom has played an integral role in Pittsburgh’s history, not only for congregants but for the city as a whole,” Strassburger told the Chronicle afterward. “Most would look at this gem of a building and assume it was already designated as historic; I’m happy to play a small role in making that a reality.”
If signed by Gainey, the legislation could provide “another avenue” for Rodef Shalom to seek funding — grants and otherwise — for building upkeep and restoration, Falcone said.
“It shows it’s important to everyone, that it contributes to the public good,” he said.
If approved, the congregation would celebrate the designation in November — during the 166th anniversary of the temple and, also, the anniversary of the Pittsburgh Platform, Falcone said.
“We’re looking forward to having a celebration and a historic designation unveiling, too,” he said. “It would be lovely and something we’re looking forward to.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.