Rodef Shalom seeks historic landmark designation
Preserving history'Beacon of Jewish ideals'

Rodef Shalom seeks historic landmark designation

The designation, if approved by Pittsburgh City Council, would enshrine Rodef Shalom’s importance in the growth and fabric of Pittsburgh.

Rodef Shalom Congregation (Photo courtesy of Rodef Shalom Congregation)
Rodef Shalom Congregation (Photo courtesy of Rodef Shalom Congregation)

Matthew Falcone remembers the first time he saw the majestic stained glass-adorned sanctuary of Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside.

Falcone moved to Pittsburgh about 12 years ago, and, though he was familiar with the dark and often-cramped synagogues of Europe — many of the more ornate ones were destroyed during World War II —his frame of reference for American synagogues was even less grandiose.

“I had experienced the 1960s-style box synagogues in northern Virginia — bland, very non-descript,” said Falcone, who now serves as the board president of Rodef Shalom. “I really had never experienced anything like Rodef Shalom before. When I walked into the sanctuary, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God! Jews did this!’ It seemed to me totally revolutionary. I remember thinking, ‘This is so American, so modern, so open.’”

Falcone is now hoping some paperwork with Pittsburgh officials can ensure future generations will be just as blown away by the Reform congregation’s building on Fifth Avenue as he was.

Rodef Shalom, during celebration of its 165th anniversary this month, submitted a 70-page application on Nov. 9 to the City of Pittsburgh seeking designation as a historic city landmark. The designation, if approved by Pittsburgh City Council, would enshrine Rodef Shalom’s importance in the growth and fabric of Pittsburgh, and protect the site from ill-intended changes or redevelopment.

Rodef Shalom, which frequently is referred to as 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 Shaare Shamayim congregation.

Rodef Shalom Congregation (Photo courtesy of Rodef Shalom 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 Allegheny in 1859. Shaare Shamayim merged back with Rodef Shalom in 1860, when the latter congregation started a day school and purchased property on Eighth Street in downtown Pittsburgh. At the 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 Judaism 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.

In 1907, Rodef Shalom opened its third building, which today has four components: a sanctuary designed by Henry Hornbostel in an eclectic style, with Modern French and Beaux Arts influences; a religious education wing to the west; a large social hall wing to the north and the east; and a smaller, two-story “porte-cochere” that stands on the rear façade and was built about 20 years ago by The Design Alliance, according to the temple’s application with the city.

The sanctuary, arguably the building’s most breathtaking feature, is centered around “a monumental, square-planned auditorium … topped by a convex mansard roof, or square dome, in green tile with a central skylight.” When originally constructed in 1907, the sanctuary boasted an adjoining rear wing, which was used for Sunday school, social programs, administration and other functions.

“Today,” according to the application, “virtually no recognizable trace of this wing remains, it having been subsumed by subsequent additions and multiple renovations.”

The religious education wing, including J. Leonard Levy Hall, was constructed in 1938. The social hall wing, which includes Solomon B. Freehof Hall, was built between 1954 and 1956.

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.
“It’s at the local level where there are teeth,” Slack told the Chronicle.

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.

The pair had worked together previously on the National Register of Historic Places application for Western State Penitentiary in Pittsburgh. Bamberg also pored over Hornbostel’s architectural work in a study of B’nai Israel, a shuttered East Liberty congregation whose site is being adaptively reused as housing. Hornbostel designed that building’s epic rotunda.

“For me, it was a real privilege being able to work on these projects back-to-back,” Bamberg said. “It’s fun when you like your work.”

“It’s really exciting for me to stand briefly in someone else’s shoes and see … why these things are important to them,” Slack added. “I just feel really fortunate to be able to study these buildings and share what I find.”

The process from here for Slack and Bamberg’s application is “fairly straightforward,” according to Sarah Quinn, a historic preservation planner in Pittsburgh’s department of city planning.

The city Historic Review Commission will review the application, with a preliminary hearing likely in early December, Quinn said. It then will make a recommendation to Pittsburgh City Council based on two major factors: historical significance, and the building’s “integrity.”

“Something as simple as having vinyl siding — all of those sorts of things make up the integrity of the building,” Quinn said.

The city’s Planning Commission also will review the application and make a separate recommendation to Pittsburgh City Council. If City Council deems the recommendations appropriate, it will issue a “certificate of appropriateness,” or COA, which will dictate how the exterior of the building can be treated. The whole process could take several months to complete.

Why do it?

“A lot of times, it’s for protection of the building,” Quinn said. “You cannot demolish a building [such as this] without Historic Review Commission approval first.”

“We’re really hopeful and we’re excited to do this,” Falcone, Rodef Shalom’s board president, said. “Apparently, we are the first Jewish house of worship to go through this process in Pittsburgh.”

Falcone said Rodef Shalom officials have spent a lot of time talking about how the historic designation application “is tied to our identity, progressive Jewish values and Reform Judaism in particular.”

“The sanctuary’s not just pretty — it has a direct connection to Rodef Shalom’s history,” he added.

Rabbi Aaron Bisno, Rodef Shalom’s senior rabbi, said the application for historic landmark designation “is a long-overdue recognition of our significance in the city.”

“When I came to Pittsburgh 18 years ago, I was familiar with the congregation’s history, the rabbis, the members and the good works of the congregation,” Bisno said. “But one of the things I have come to love most about our building is seeing people see it for the first time — our sanctuary, our holy spaces.

“Hopefully,” Bisno added, “this designation ensures Rodef Shalom remains a beacon of Jewish ideals.” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writing living in Pittsburgh.

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