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History'Beth David Congregation'

The oldest Jewish building in Pittsburgh

“Beth David” still marks the façade of the Miller Street synagogue, but it barely operated under that name.

The former Shaaray Tefillah synagogue — seen here in an archival photograph by Gerald Sapir from the 1990s — still stands on Miller Street in the Hill District today. (Image courtesy of Rauh Jewish Archives)
The former Shaaray Tefillah synagogue — seen here in an archival photograph by Gerald Sapir from the 1990s — still stands on Miller Street in the Hill District today. (Image courtesy of Rauh Jewish Archives)

To the best of my knowledge, the oldest surviving Jewish building in Pittsburgh proper is a small synagogue on Miller Street in the Hill District. The date pressed into the cornerstone reads 1905, making it a year older than the main sanctuary of Rodef Shalom.

High on the three-story building is a Star of David in the brickwork. A stone nameplate below reads, half in Hebrew and half in English, “Beth David Congregation.”

Beth David built the synagogue but never occupied by it. To explain why requires a brief congregational genealogy. As the local Jewish historian Jacob Feldman once noted: “The Russians created more new congregations and societies than any other Jewish ethnic group in Pittsburgh. By the 1920s, they comprised 20 to 25 percent of its Jewish community, whereas the Lithuanians comprised 45 to 50 percent. But the Russians functioned in smaller units and their synagogues recurrently divided.”

Beth Abraham was the first — chartered 1889. Agudas Achim Congregation broke away in 1890. It built a $16,000 debt-free synagogue on Crawford Street in the Hill in 1894. A faction from present-day Ukraine founded Beth Zedeck Congregation around 1899. It was chartered in 1902 and grew rapidly over the next three years, joined by hundreds of survivors of Russian pogroms, including the infamous Kishinev massacre.

These newer members broke away from Beth Zedeck in 1905 to form Beth David Congregation. Almost immediately, Beth David spent about $5,000 to buy and raze two houses on Miller Street and another $10,500 to build a new synagogue. It was almost a brick-for-brick replica of Ohel Jacob, the Romanian shul built one street over in 1903.

The cornerstone of the former Beth David/Shaaray Tefillah synagogue on Miller Street in the Hill District, thought to contain a time capsule. (Image courtesy of Rauh Jewish Archives)
Beth David laid the cornerstone in August 1905. Common for the time, a parade marked the occasion. A brass band led 800 marchers down Miller Street. Each marcher climbed onto a wooden platform over the construction site and waited to sign a scroll.

But too many stood on the platform at once. It jackknifed, dropping hundreds into the cellar. “The screams and groans of the men, women and children caught in the wreckage of broken joists and flooring was appalling,” one newspaper article noted.

A rumor went through the crowd. Someone said several children were trapped in the rubble. A panic started. Police were literally holding mothers back. One can only imagine the momentary horror, as parents who had survived the worst violence of Russia now feared that they had lost their children to a hapless accident in blessed America.

No one actually died, thankfully, but many were injured. Rabbi Aaron Mordechai Ashinsky was trampled and badly bruised by people trying to escape. Nevertheless, he climbed out of the wreckage and, after calm was restored, completed the ceremony.

Beth David ran out of money before completing construction. Rabbi Moshe Shimon Sivitz mediated a merger with Beth Zedeck in 1906. They formed a new congregation called Sahro Tefilah, later known as Shaaray Tefillah. “Beth David” still marks the façade of the Miller Street synagogue, but it barely operated under that name.

The divisions continued. A group broke away from Shaaray Tefillah in 1908 to found Beth Mogen David. It built a smaller synagogue next door. Shaaray Tefillah became “the big Russian shul,” and Beth Mogen David became “the little Russian shul.”

There were other Russian shuls in the Hill. Anshe Volinia was founded in 1907 and became Kesser Torah. Anshe Lubovitz was established the same year and became one starting point of the local Lubavitch community. And there were several Russian landsmenshaftn, or mutual aid societies: the Polodiers, the Pliskovers, the Shpikovers.

All these groups eventually left the Hill or disbanded. Shaaray Tefillah moved to Bartlett Street in the 1940s. The Miller Street synagogue became a Baptist church.

When the building went on the market a few years ago, I got the chance to walk through it, documenting its Jewish traces: a niche in the former beis medrash where an ark would have been, an imposing stone tablet in the backyard commemorating a renovation in the 1930s, pages from The Forward insulating the walls in the basement, where all those marchers had laid in an injured heap more than a century earlier.

The women’s balcony was untouched, except by time. On a corner of the ceiling was a painting of two fish joined at the tongue over Hebrew words that appear to be “mazel Adar dagim,” “the sign of Adar: fish.” Pisces. It must have been part of a mural representing the entire Jewish zodiac — reminding worshippers of the cosmic scale of divine plans — but everywhere else the paint was flaked and the plaster crumbling.

The cornerstone of the former Beth David/Shaaray Tefillah synagogue on Miller Street in the Hill District, thought to contain a time capsule. Out front was the cornerstone, stamped “1905.” After all the injured had been treated and the crowd quieted down, the organizers of the event prepared a time capsule. As one article noted: “In a box placed in the corner-stone were copies of papers containing an account of Kishinev and Gomal massacres of Jews by the Russians, a parchment with the names of the contributors to the synagogue, and other church records.”

What does that mean: “papers containing an account?” Are they just copies of local newspapers, something you could now find online? Or are they firsthand survivor testimony? The only way to know for sure would be to crack open that cement cube. PJC

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

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