The history of three congregations — in three documents
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HistoryRauh Jewish History Program & Archives

The history of three congregations — in three documents

"Three Congregations" exhibit opens

New Light Congregation's building gets a new life with its purchase by Yeshiva Schools. (File photo)
New Light Congregation's building gets a new life with its purchase by Yeshiva Schools. (File photo)

The second Jewish congregation in a city is usually more intriguing than the first. We know why the first started: there wasn’t one, and there needed to be one. The motivations of the second are a bit knottier. What new thing were they trying to create, and why?

A lot of Jews disparage this tendency to subdivide, dismissing it as a sign of perpetual Jewish dissatisfaction. But not all dissatisfaction is bad. Dissatisfaction, after all, is among the leading symptoms of idealism — the belief that things can always be better.

Some subdivisions even allow for deeper unity. A community with many congregations is really no different than 50 individual states each claiming a shared national identity.

As we approach one year since the attack on Oct. 27, 2018, the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives has created an exhibit celebrating this Jewish tendency to subdivide.

The exhibit, called “Three Congregations,” uses nearly 100 documents and photographs from the archive to bring to life the three congregations that were worshipping inside the synagogue that awful morning: Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, New Light and Dor Hadash.

The exhibit is not a homework assignment. It contains few names or dates. It instead asks an essential question about these congregations. What qualities did each one bring to the Jewish community of Pittsburgh? Or, put another way: Why was each one necessary?

Being an archive, we always start by listening. We listen to the things each congregation created as it went about its normal affairs. Here is what three of those things have to say.

The charter of Tree of Life
The frequently told origin story of Tree of Life is denominational: Rodef Shalom became Reform, and Tree of Life broke away to retain its Orthodoxy. While true, this telling is anchored to present-day biases. By assuming that their Reform was our Reform, and their Orthodoxy was our Orthodoxy, it overlooks the most interesting aspects of the split.

Tree of Life was founded in June 1864, following six tumultuous months within the small Jewish community of Pittsburgh. The American Reform leader Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise of Cincinnati had come to town in December 1863, during the final days of Chanukah, to convince Rodef Shalom to adopt new practices. He gave four speeches over three days—“probably more than one should deliver,” he later acknowledged — and left with well-deserved optimism. On Jan. 3, 1864, Rodef Shalom made its first reform. It switched prayer books, trading its Minhag Ashkenaz for Wise’s new creation: Minhag America.

A group of traditionalists at Rodef Shalom soon broke away to form Tree of Life. But this new group also abandoned Minhag Ashkenaz. Its charter, adopted in 1865, called for Minhag Poland, a related but distinct mode of worship. The change suggests discontents beyond the growing divide over adapting traditional Judaism to America’s freedoms.

The Jewish community of Pittsburgh in the 1850s had been relatively simple — a segment of Germans and a segment of Poseners perennially bickered. Things got complicated in the 1860s. The breakaway group behind Tree of Life was largely Posener, but it also included Lithuanians and a few Germans and Dutch — united by concerns over reforms.

Like most alliances built upon mutual opposition, Tree of Life was impactful and unstable. The Lithuanian faction soon broke away to form what is now Beth Hamedrash Hagadol-Beth Jacob. They returned to Minhag Ashkenaz as their standard of prayer.

After the split, Tree of Life shifted. It had been created to anchor one end of the spectrum of Jewish observance. Now it balanced in the center. It held that middle ground for a century, helping to establish Conservative Judaism not only locally but also nationally.

Its move to Oakland in 1906 put it at the geographic center of a Jewish community spread between the Hill District and the East End. The vestry room at Tree of Life became a popular meeting place for Jewish groups, like the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, that wanted to transcend the religious and class differences separating those neighborhoods.
With its move to Squirrel Hill in 1952, Tree of Life found new opportunities for bridging communal divides. Before Rodef Shalom offered b’nai mitzvot in 1966, many of its families also joined Tree of Life for a time so that their children could perform the ritual.

A newspaper clipping about New Light
A charter is usually the best way to learn about the ambitions of a new congregation, but the 1909 charter of New Light congregation only tells half its story. To properly understand the spirit of the congregation, you need to start at the midpoint of its history.

A Pittsburgh Press article from Nov. 8, 1955, describes a congregation in limbo. New Light had just sold its Roberts Street synagogue in the Hill District to a Baptist church and would soon begin meeting at a home in Squirrel Hill. It had donated two of its Torah scrolls to the new Parkway Jewish Center in Monroeville and moved its remaining possessions into storage at Kneseth Israel on Negley Avenue in East Liberty. It had been without a religious school for at least 15 years and without a rabbi for about four years.

New Light still counted five original members who had attended the dedication of its Robert Street synagogue in 1903, back when the congregation was known by its earlier name Ohel Jacob. These five men were remnants of a once-large Romanian settlement on the Hill. But the days of ethnically oriented Jewish congregations in the city were over.

The article casually mentions a remarkable statistic. Over the previous year, New Light had gained 75 new members, “mainly the children of the founders and others through the years who actively participated in the congregation.” A change seemed to be underway.

Within a few years, the change was complete. New Light bought a house at the corner of Beechwood and Forbes to use as its synagogue. It adopted new bylaws, written in English, rather than the Yiddish used for the original. It switched its denominational affiliation from Orthodox to Conservative. It started a Sisterhood and a Men’s Club.

With these changes, New Light became the only small Conservative congregation in the city — considerably smaller than Tree of Life, Beth Shalom or B’nai Israel. It paired liberal observances with the scale and intimacy of its old neighborhood Orthodox shul.

Why did these “children of the founders and others” modify an old congregation? Why didn’t they just build their desired institution anew? Without the minutes from those years, we can only speculate. But it isn’t hard to imagine the appeal of keeping alive a half-century tradition, especially a tradition lodged in memories of so many childhoods.

A statement of principles by Dor Hadash
The charter of Dor Hadash is sparse. In the blank space reserved for describing the purpose of the congregation is “the establishment of a synagogue and study group.”

A much richer account is a “Statement of Principles” created in 1963. The statement is neatly typed down on an 8.5 x 14-inch sheet of paper with the words “Congregation Dor Hadash” centered along the footer. It contains 10 principles — echoing, intentionally or unintentionally, the 10 commandments and the minimum attendance for a minyan.

For a 56-year-old document, the statement feels remarkably contemporary. Here is the second principle: “We regard as central to Judaism social justice, equality before the law, compassion, freedom, international understanding, brotherly love, ‘tzedakah,’ freedom of speech and thought, and equal opportunity for all men and women regardless of race, color, or creed.” With only a few tweaks to the wording, it could have been written today.

Hebrew Institute Director Dr. Solomon Abrams had convened Dor Hadash in 1963 as a place for local unaffiliated Jews to meet for prayer and study. By the end of the decade, Dor Hadash was in the process of joining the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot, later known as the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.

The Statement of Principles played a part of that process. As the explicitly unaffiliated congregation stood on the brink of denominational affiliation, the statement served as a lodestar. It was one of many moments throughout the history of Dor Hadash when the membership navigated its ideals through the choppy waters of running a congregation.

From that perspective, the most consequential principle has been the sixth: “We pledge ourselves to conduct our affairs in a democratic manner and to divest our services of all elements of commercialism.” The reverberations of this principle can be felt in key moments throughout the history of Dor Hadash: its switch from town-hall style business meetings to a traditional board of directors; its perpetual reluctance to hire a permanent, full-time rabbi; and especially its unwavering commitment to renting space — first at the Hebrew Institute, then Rodef Shalom, then Community Day School, then Tree of Life.

Almost every Jewish congregation begins without a home, a rabbi or a board. Dor Hadash was the first in this region to build its spiritual identity from those conditions. pjc

“Three Congregations” will be on exhibit at the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives, on the sixth floor of the Heinz History Center, through Dec. 27. Admission to the exhibit is free but does not include admission to other exhibits at the center.

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at eslidji@heinzhistorycenter.org or 412-454-6406.

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