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HistoryThe price of Poale Zedeck

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The cost of a synagogue; the man behind a nameplate

Architectural rendering of the Poale Zedeck Congregation synagogue on Shady Avenue in Squirrel Hill from 1928 (Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project).
Architectural rendering of the Poale Zedeck Congregation synagogue on Shady Avenue in Squirrel Hill from 1928 (Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project).

Tishrei this year yielded 12 days of Shabbat and Yom Tov. That’s a lot of time in synagogue, a lot of festive meals, a lot of neighborhood strolls. A lot of conversations.

As you probably know, a leading topic of conversation in Jewish Pittsburgh is Jewish Pittsburgh — its current state but also, of course, its history. Every holiday season, I am pleasantly ambuscaded with exceptionally specific questions about local Jewish history. Rarely do I have an answer ready, but often I know where to look. And so each year, I typically spend a few days post-holiday tracking down small bits of information.

This year, I thought I’d look for a few of those answers out in the open. There were many more questions than these two, but many of them were personal genealogical matters not necessarily appropriate for the newspaper, and all the others were stumpers.

***

As I was leaving Poale Zedeck one morning after services, I passed two people having a conversation by the front doors. Spotting me, one said to the other, “Here’s who you should ask.” And then to me, he added, “How much did this building cost?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“Aw, c’mon man!” he said.

“Don’t worry. I know how to find out.”

Early in the pandemic, our volunteer Paula Riemer compiled an inventory of every address given by Rabbi Sol B. Friedman, spiritual leader of Poale Zedeck during the 1920s. He oversaw the congregation’s relocation from the Hill District to Squirrel Hill and construction of its Shady Avenue synagogue. Her inventory made it easy to find dates for the groundbreaking, cornerstone laying, and dedication of the building.

Using those dates, I browsed several newspapers until I found a notice for the cornerstone laying ceremony in the June 23, 1928, issue of the Pittsburgh Press: “Erection of the new building, to cost $200,000, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the congregation.”

As with any construction project, early figures can be misleading. Thankfully, there is a second source. In the archive, we have a financial report for Poale Zedeck from 1929-1930. Under “assets,” it lists the Squirrel Hill synagogue at $190,000 with an additional $14,000 in furniture and fixtures, for a total of $204,000 in October 1930.

Run that figure through the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator,” and it comes to $3,669,626.18 in September 2022 dollars.

Poale Zedeck raised these funds during one of the dizziest construction booms in local Jewish history. The previous five years featured ribbon cuttings for the B’nai Israel Congregation synagogue (1923), the Adath Jeshurun Congregation synagogue (1923), the Congregation Beth Shalom community house (1923), the Young Men and Women’s Hebrew Association building (1926), the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House auditorium (1928), the Lando Theater (1928), and the new Montefiore Hospital (1929), not to mention thousands of residential units in the eastern neighborhoods and several major civic projects, including the Boulevard of the Allies, the Liberty Bridge and Tunnels, Taylor Allderdice High School, the Grant Building, and the Cathedral of Learning.

The Great Depression followed by World War II paused major construction for some 15 years, which might be why much of Squirrel Hill feels perpetually like 1931.

***

At a meal a few days later, the host took a book down from the shelf. It was a book about Israel, but that wasn’t the reason for passing it around the table. On the inside cover was an inscription in Hebrew calligraphy, hand-illuminated with colored marker.

Joel David Cohen was a leader in the Mizrachi movement in Pittsburgh and a longtime officer at Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Congregation (Rauh Jewish Archives).
It was addressed to a man named Yoel Dovid Cohen of Pittsburgh.

“Who was he?” I asked.

No one knew. The book had been purchased second hand.

When I swapped the name out for English a few days later, the gears of memory chugged into motion. Joel David Cohen. We have a small collection of his papers.

Cohen was born in Russia in 1877 and immigrated to Western Pennsylvania in 1891. He worked as a salesman and saw three sons fight in World War II. His papers include his marriage certificate and citizenship papers, as well as family photographs.

Included is a clipping from 1953. The headline reads “Mizrachi Mourns Joel D. Cohen.” It was once common for Jewish organizations to pass resolutions after the death of beloved colleagues and then to publish these memorial resolutions in the newspaper.

The resolution notes that Cohen was “a veteran of the Mizrachi movement who showed his great interest and deep devotion to the cause of religious Zionism even to the last days of his life. As a former president of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol and as a leading Mizrachist Mr. Cohen constantly endeavored to enhance the prestige of Torah Judaism. We of Mizrachi shall always cherish our memory of our beloved Chaver Joel D. Cohen.”

The archive operates on an odd logic: Appearing in the public record once makes you more likely to appear twice. That’s because the archive reflects communal involvement, and people involved in communal life tend to be involved in many ways. 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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