One of the most important Jewish sites in Western Pennsylvania is the Dairy Queen on Saw Mill Run Boulevard in Carrick. That’s where hundreds if not thousands of families know where to turn to reach one of the largest Jewish cemetery complexes in the region.
Pass through the arching iron gate of this complex, follow the brick road past the hairpin turn, uphill, as far as it will accommodate a car, and then hike a bit further uphill on foot, and you’ll reach the oldest part of the cemetery. It’s a four-acre plot on a two-way slope with sections of four burial grounds: Beth Abraham Cemetery, Shaare Zedeck Cemetery, the old section of the Shaare Torah/Gates of Wisdom Cemetery and the small Marks Family Cemetery — all now managed by the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association.
As you step through the rows of stones, you will find many mysteries. Some strike you immediately, like the miniature, illegible graves in the children’s section. Certain deeper mysteries, though, only emerge as you start fitting together the ragged historical record.
For example, here you will find the grave of Joseph Reichman.
Reichman was a cigar maker and later the mashigiach (inspector) at Montefiore Hospital’s kosher kitchen. He was a leader of the Galizianer community in Pittsburgh — a charter member of Machsikei Hadas Congregation and its secretary for 20 years.
When he died, his obituary noted that the burial would occur at the Machsikei Hadas Cemetery in Millvale. It didn’t. It occurred here, at the Shaare Zedeck Cemetery.
A few rows away lies Michael Sigal. He was a leader of the Romanian community in Pittsburgh and a charter member of New Light Congregation. About half his family is buried in New Light Cemetery. The other half is buried near him at Shaare Zedeck.
Shaare Zedeck was the local Polishe shul, founded in 1895 by Jewish immigrants from the country around Warsaw. Why are Reichman, Sigal, their wives and others from Galicia and Romania all buried in the local Polish cemetery, instead of alongside their landsmen and extended families at the cemeteries of the congregations they founded?
Because it wasn’t originally a Polishe cemetery.
Shaare Torah Congregation purchased the initial four-acre plot of this cemetery complex for $900 in September 1891 and segmented the property to serve emerging factions within the immigrant Jewish community. It kept one acre, sold another acre to Ahave Sholem Congregation in 1892, and sold the remaining two-acre L-shaped parcel to a group called “Anshei Russia,” which is almost certainly Beth Abraham Congregation.
Through several far-sighted land purchases and expansions, Beth Abraham grew to the west. Shaare Torah grew to the east, acquiring a large plot of land across Stewart Avenue.
Ahave Sholem Congregation didn’t grow. It was small and short-lived and left little documentation. What survives, though, marks a turning point in local Jewish history.
Ahave Sholem was chartered in 1889. Its founders came from Galicia, a historic region of Europe that covers parts of present-day Poland and Ukraine, and from Romania, just to the south. Among the founders of Ahave Sholem were Joseph Reichman, Mike Sigal and a few others whose markers can be found in the Shaare Zedeck and Marks cemeteries.
Pittsburgh proper had at least six Jewish congregations in 1889. Rodef Shalom and Tree of Life were defined by denomination. The other six were Orthodox congregations defined by ethnicity: two were Lithuanian, one was Hungarian and one was Russian.
Every new congregation emerges from some dissatisfaction with the status quo. It makes sense that the earliest Romanians and Galizianers in town felt uncomfortable with the available options and wanted something more familiar. The question is why they united.
Their coalition only lasted a few years. As Jewish immigration accelerated through the 1890s, the two contingents within the congregation each grew large enough to split.
The Galizianers started Machsikei Hadas. The Romanians started Ohel Jacob Congregation, which later changed its name to Oir Chudesh and is now New Light.
These two congregations had something in common.
In an August 1994 oral history about Machsikei Hadas, Sidney Santman saida; “It was Galizianers. You went where you came from. It was a Galizianer shul and that’s it.”
“Was there anything in the rituals or anything else that made it different from the other synagogues?” the interviewer asked.
“Well, they daven in Sephardic.”
“They didn’t daven in Ashkenazi.”
“You know what that is?”
The interviewer outlined the differences between the Ashkenazic Jewry emerging from Eastern Europe and the Sefardic Jewry of Spain and then wondered aloud, “But it is interesting that Galicia is in Eastern Europe however, the ritual, at least the one followed here in Pittsburgh, was the Spanish or Sfardi ritual. Do you know why that was?”
“No, I don’t know why,” Santman said.
“I think it has something to do with how, where the population initially came from when they were expelled from Spain and where they ended up settling,” the interviewer said.
“Probably that would be reasonable.”
Reasonable, but wrong.
Machsikei Hadas was not a Sefardic congregation. It was a “Nusach Sfard” congregation.
Nusach Sfard is a style of prayer, not an ethnic identity. Confusingly, Nusach Sfard is not the style of prayer used by most of Sephardic Jewry. That is called Nusach Eidot Hamizrachi. Nusach Sfard is a style of prayer developed by Ashkenazim who wanted to incorporate certain Kabbalistic components from Sephardic prayer into their worship.
There have been various Nusach Sfard congregations in Pittsburgh over the years, including Torath Chaim in East Liberty and the current Kesser Torah. But in those early years at the turn of the century, there was only one other besides Machsikei Hadas.
Article 1-Section 1 of the 1931 New Light Congregation bylaws proclaims: “The name of our congregation shall always be ‘Or Chodesh Anshei Romanian,’ according to our charter. It can never be changed. And our prayer is in the Nusach Sfard and is Orthodox.”
In a city where every Orthodox synagogue was using a version of Nusach Ashkenaz, a cohort of Galizianers and Romanians united around a preference for Nusach Sfard.
This leads to one final revelation.
Who were the Kabbalistically inclined Ashkenazim who created Nusach Sfard?
Often, they were Chassidim.
Santman recalled that the founders of Machsikei Hadas were mostly disciples of the Belz Dynasty. “Machsikei Hadas,” Hebrew for “Defenders of the Knowledge,” was also the name of a club, political party and newspaper founded by Belzer Chassidim in Galicia.
Less is known about the origins of the founders of New Light Congregation. Perhaps some enterprising genealogist in the community will track down their origins to see if they are clustered around some of the famous Chassidic dynasties of Romania.
If so, it would suggest that Ahave Sholem was the first congregation in the city with Chassidic influences and that the current Shaare Zedeck Cemetery is its physical marker. PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-454-6406.