Rodef Shalom, Temple Sinai and “A Marvelous Example”
HistoryThe two congregations are again exploring collaboration

Rodef Shalom, Temple Sinai and “A Marvelous Example”

Facing over-capacity in the mid-1940s, Rodef Shalom decided to try something new for Jewish Pittsburgh: starting a new congregation.

Dr. Solomon B. Freehof of Rodef Shalom Congregation watches Leon Falk Jr. give an address in the new Falk Auditorium of Temple Sinai during the dedication of an addition to the synagogue complex in May 1958—photograph by Hans Jonas. (Photo courtesy of the Rauh Jewish Archives)
Dr. Solomon B. Freehof of Rodef Shalom Congregation watches Leon Falk Jr. give an address in the new Falk Auditorium of Temple Sinai during the dedication of an addition to the synagogue complex in May 1958—photograph by Hans Jonas. (Photo courtesy of the Rauh Jewish Archives)

In the mid-1940s, Rodef Shalom Congregation was packed. It had a religious school with 900 students. Its High Holiday services filled the grand sanctuary of its Fifth Avenue synagogue and spilled into nearby venues, including the Carnegie Music Hall, the Syria Mosque and Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall. Even with membership capped at 1,400, the congregation was still regularly turning away interested families.

Pittsburgh had a persistent class of unaffiliated Jews at the time, between 3,000 and 5,000 people by various counts. Those among them inclined toward Reform had no place to go. Rodef Shalom was the only Reform congregation in Pittsburgh (although there were others in nearby towns), and it was becoming too big to grow any further.

It was a national problem. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations estimated that some 80% of the 500,000 Reform-minded Jews in the United States were unaffiliated. Reform temples in many big cities were approaching capacity.

The UAHC wanted dynamic Jewish communities and felt many larger Reform congregations were “growing soft” in their success. It saw Pittsburgh as a place to test a new idea: creating new congregations specifically to attract these unaffiliated Jews.

The result was Temple Sinai. Seventy-eight years later, with these two Reform congregations exploring new opportunities for collaboration, a review of the archives of both congregations reveals the behind-the-scenes story of a special collaboration.

UAHC Executive Director Maurice Eisendrath pitched the Rodef Shalom board of trustees on the idea in April 1946. As reported in the minutes, he called Pittsburgh “the most important city in the US in the development of this movement. That is, if Pittsburgh would encourage the formation of a new synagogue with which unaffiliated Jews might be connected, it would, in his opinion, set a marvelous example for the rest of the country.”

The significance of Pittsburgh is not made explicit but may have reflected the influence of Dr. Solomon B. Freehof. The revered spiritual leader of the Rodef Shalom was also immediate past-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He had been privately advocating for a second Reform congregation for at least two years.

Rodef Shalom called a special membership meeting in June 1946 to discuss the idea. President Eugene Strassburger began by acknowledging the events of 1863-1864, when Tree of Life Congregation broke away from Rodef Shalom over disputes about liturgical reforms. He swiftly struck down any comparison. The current proposal for a new congregation “had no connection with any possible split-up, there was no dissention… and no one of our members was expected to leave our congregation.”

David Glick was chair of the Rodef Shalom committee tasked with analyzing the proposal. In his opinion, “because (Rodef Shalom) was so large, it had grown complacent.” A little “friendly competition” might restore some of its earlier dynamism.

After an evening of discussion, membership approved the idea. With that mandate, 16 men gathered in Louis Caplan’s office on Aug. 22 to work out the details.

In attendance was Rabbi Burton E. Levinson, who had been sent to Pittsburgh by the UAHC to lead the proposed congregation. He had already rented an office at 1701 Murray Ave. and secured the Oakland YM&WHA for upcoming High Holiday services. Rabbi Levinson had also approached the National Conference of Christians and Jews to see if any Squirrel Hill churches would temporarily house this proposed Jewish congregation. In a wonderful ecumenical gesture, Asbury Methodist Church and the Church of the Redeemer both opened their facilities that November. For a time, Asbury Methodist Church even installed a temporary Torah ark in one of its sanctuaries.

Despite this momentum, hesitations persisted. Some at the August meeting worried about competition. Squirrel Hill was rapidly gaining new Jewish communal infrastructure in the mid-1940s, prompted partly by the enthusiastic spirit of returning Jewish servicemen. The Irene Kaufmann Center, the Hebrew Institute, and Shaare Torah Congregation were all arriving from the Hill District. Young People’s Synagogue had recently been launched by local Orthodox youth who wanted to learn synagogue management. Tree of Life had recently acquired vacant property at Wilkins and Shady.

Tree of Life had always leaned left within the Conservative movement. Some worried that an established congregation with a new building would be more attractive to unaffiliated Jews of Squirrel Hill than an untested Reform congregation. Behind the scenes, Rabbi Levinson even asked Tree of Life’s Rabbi Herman Hailperin to consider re-affiliating his congregation with the Reform movement, but Rabbi Hailperin declined.

One person in attendance questioned whether a congregation could be “artificially stimulated” rather than “formed through the spontaneous desire” of founding members?

The question reflected a Jewish perspective. Speculatively “planting” a new congregation is relatively common within many Christian denominations but was unprecedented to the Jewish scene in Western Pennsylvania at that point. The dozens of Jewish congregations established locally in the century before 1946 all began as loose affiliations of like-minded people who gradually united into congregational bodies.

Despite these concerns, the group proceeded. Rodef Shalom assigned several of its leading members to an organizing committee: Louis Caplan, Leon Falk Jr., Louis Friedman, Louis Reizenstein, Harry Rice and Stanley Rogaliner. It also provided a $7,500 loan. The UAHC added another $5,000. These loans would total $200,000 today.

After a few months of behind-the-scenes work, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and Rodef Shalom Congregation took out a full-page advertisement in the Jewish Criterion on Aug. 30, 1946, announcing the creation of Temple Sinai. (Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project)
The Aug. 30 edition of the Jewish Criterion carried a full-page advertisement announcing an upcoming meeting at the Hotel Schenley. “The Union of American Hebrew Congregations with the approval of Rodef Shalom Congregation announces the opening of a New Reform Temple to be known as Temple Sinai” (misspelled Sinia).

In introductory remarks at the gathering, Judge Benjamin Lencher reiterated the spirit of the project. “The organization of Temple Sinai has grown out of great need; it was not born out of discord but out of dire need for a more personalized Reform Judaism. Pittsburgh’s second Reform Temple has the blessing of Rodef Shalom,” he said.

Toward the end of a long address, Rabbi Levinson said, “By the creation of Temple Sinai we will erase from the record the names of those Jews who do not stand at any synagogue and pray at no altar, whose children are growing up in a world ignorant of God and Israel.” While one synagogue alone could never accommodate thousands of unaffiliated Jews, planting a congregation worked. Temple Sinai opened that fall with ample crowds. It soon converted the old Worthington Mansion into a synagogue.

Rodef Shalom was also encouraged. Over the next decade, it took a proactive role assisting emerging Reform communities in the suburbs, providing expertise and resources to both Temple Emanuel of South Hills and Temple David in Monroeville.

All four congregations kept growing. By the mid-1950s, Temple Sinai had 450 member-families. The congregation soon instituted its own membership cap, leading to whispers about the possibility of a third Reform congregation opening in Squirrel Hill.

Protesting this decision to the Temple Sinai board in January 1954, founding member Harry Buchman focused on the needs of the broader community. “Let us not be satisfied with our accomplishments. Men, women and children of the Jewish faith are knocking at our door wishing to gain admittance but we cannot let them through because the board voted to close our membership. This is not a club — it is a house of worship…” PJC

Martha Berg is the archivist of Rodef Shalom Congregation. Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center.

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