Congregation Adat Shalom, located in Fox Chapel, is the direct descendent of two congregations that are now defunct: Beth Jacob in New Kensington, and B’nai Israel, which was located on Negley Avenue in the East Liberty Highland Park area. Adat Shalom maintains scrolls and artifacts from both parent synagogues, but the Torah scrolls featured on this page are from congregation B’nai Israel, located in Pittsburgh’s East End. Some of the scrolls that migrated from the East End to Fox Chapel have since been relocated outside of the country or have been ritually interred in a genizah, while others are still in use at Congregation Adat Shalom.
The story of the B’nai Israel Torah scrolls which have been adopted by Adat Shalom is representative of a larger narrative about Pittsburgh Jews. In the years after World War II, the suburbs offered middle-class Americans the opportunity to start a new life outside of the nation’s urban centers. Upwardly-mobile American Jews flocked to the suburbs in the middle of the twentieth century and faced the challenge of rebuilding their faith community outside of the urban core. The preservation of the B’nai Israel scrolls (as well as other Judaica) indicates the determination of the community to rebuild and to maintain their faith, tradition, and roots.
Jews in Pittsburgh’s East End
The history of Pittsburgh’s East End is the subject of interweaving narratives for multiple ethnic groups, including Jews. Like the Hill District before it, East End existed, in its heyday, as a business district, with both commercial and residential elements. The East End was an area of second settlement for Jews, an area where Pittsburgh’s Jews chose to move once they could afford to leave their immigrant slums.
East Liberty was one of several areas of second settlement for Pittsburgh’s Jews, along with Highland Park, Squirrel Hill, Morningside, and Stanton Heights.The neighborhood served by Bnai Israel was typical of an area of second settlement: it was a modestly middle class neighborhood in close proximity to the inner city with a preponderance of businesses. Because of these characteristics, the Jewish population of East End grew.
These areas of second settlement were essential for the economic development of Jews in Pittsburgh. The retail areas of East Liberty provided the opportunity for Jews to earn their livings as shopkeepers and merchants, allowing Jews become economically secure as they acculturated.
The East End was a diverse Jewish community, and was home to numerous synagogues. Included in these were Adath Jeshurun, popularly known as the Margaretta St. shul, B’nai Israel, and Machsikei Hadas. These synagogues followed the trajectory of the people who worshipped within them: Machsikei Hadas moved from the Hill District in 1909 to serve the growing Jewish community in Highland Park, and Adath Jeshurun and B’nai Israel both moved from the East End to the suburbs in the 1990s.
This theme of American synagogues following the needs of their community dates back to the earliest years of American Jewry. As Jewish demographics, values, and lifestyles evolved, the respective synagogues did what they could to adapt to new realities and change alongside their congregants. As Yaier Lehrer, the Rabbi of Adat Shalom in Fox Chapel, pointed out in an interview, the key to maintaining a congregation is to evolve and cater to the needs of the population it serves. This constant adaptation to new Jewish realities is what pushed Pittsburgh’s congregations further from the city center and into the areas of second settlement, like the East End and then further out into the suburbs.
Congregation B’Nai Israel
B’nai Israel was chartered in 1911 as Jewish families flocked to Pittsburgh’s East End. The congregation vacillated between temporary and rented spaces for several years until, in 1920, a plot of land was purchased for the erection of a permanent structure. The building that stands to this day on Negley Avenue was constructed starting in 1922 and was completed in 1924. Famed architect Henry Hornbostel, who also designed Rodef Shalom several years earlier, designed the building. Hornbostel was a Brooklyn-born architect who designed much of the Carnegie Mellon campus, as well as several buildings on the University of Pittsburgh campus and around the city. He was a prominent artist, and the choice to commission a building from him revealed the high aspirations of the fledgling congregation.
Before the erection of the building, B’nai Israel was intended to serve as an Orthodox congregation, but it adopted a Conservative affiliation under the leadership of Rabbi Benjamin Lichter in 1922. This move, formalized by joining the United Synagogue of America, triggered a schism within the community as more committed traditionalists broke off to form congregation Adath Jeshurun.
During the Second Word War, world Jewry contributed to the defeat of Nazi Germany. B’nai Israel, as a prominent Pittsburgh congregation, played its part by organizing a massive sale of sale of war bonds. In 1945, the Men’s Club at the synagogue raised approximately $600,000 (over eight million 2017 dollars, adjusting for inflation). As a result, a group of Men’s Club and synagogue members traveled to Bayonne, New Jersey to dedicate the launch of a PT boat.
Congregation B’nai Israel experienced a period of explosive growth post World War II as more families moved to the East End. This stimulated the commissioning of several stained glass windows by Jean Jacques Duval in 1964 as well as a number of Torahs still in use by daughter congregation Adat Shalom. After the 1960’s, the population of the East End went into a rapid decline, and B’nai Israel was unable to undertake any further construction projects.
The architectural features as well as the sheer size of Bnai Israel’s building rivaled the opulence of the building erected for Rodef Shalom in the Shadyside neighborhood. The sanctuary popped with vibrant blues and lively tapestries. This stood in stark contrast with the dark wood paneling of Rodef Shalom’s sanctuary.
In the history of the congregation, two cantors and five Rabbis served between 1920 and 1995. Benjamin Lichter was the founding rabbi, and four years after his arrival, cantor Julius Bloom was hired. Rabbi Lichter remained in his position until 1956 where he continued as a Rabbi emeritus until his death in 1963.
Congregation B’nai Israel continued in the Conservative tradition throughout its tenure in the East End. Although its daughter congregation Adat Shalom continues to identify loosely with Conservatism, it espouses an ideology more concerned with inclusiveness and flexibility in accommodating its community of worshippers. B’nai Israel has a tradition of relatively progressive ideals, documenting bat mitzvah classes back to the 1940’s.
Bnai Israel was an architectural as well as a cultural centerpiece for the East End Jewish community. It served the area for almost 80 years and despite its demise, the synagogue continues to impact Pittsburgh Jewry though the Adat Shalom congregation.
Jewish Migration from East Liberty to Fox Chapel
The migration of the East Liberty Jewish community to Fox Chapel coincided with a nation-wide movement of American Jews from urban environments to the suburbs. The gradual move that began in the mid-1940s quickly evolved into a mass geographical fluctuation, with American Jews proving about four times as likely to move to the suburbs as their non-Jewish neighbors. Americans of all denominations conceptualized suburbia as a “sign of success, prestige, money, power, and security” that provided the space and structure for a growing population.
The Jews of Pittsburgh migrated to the suburbs somewhat later than Jews from many other American cities. Noticeable migration from urban communities such as East Liberty did not occur until the 1960s and 70s. The declining steel industry in Pittsburgh through the 1960s-1980s caused a city-wide economic recession, hurting business for Jewish proprietors. Amidst a declining market, the population declined as well. Many Pittsburghers left the city for employment and education opportunities and never returned. Additionally, Jewish small businesses were plagued by market pressure from the rise of malls around the city. A 2008 Pittsburgh Tribune article notes that “around the start of the 1960s, city planners decided East Liberty needed to keep up with the fast-growing suburbs and developed Penn Circle, a trendy urban planning initiative.”
The plan, according to a 2000 article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “removed more than 1,200 homes, relocated 3,800 people and reduced the size of the business district from 3.2 million square feet to 1.9 million square feet.” Small businesses were the biggest losers in the failed redevelopment scheme, and approximately 280 merchants closed their doors for good. In hindsight, Urban Redevelopment Authority Director Bob Pease said of the Penn Circle disaster, “suburban malls were developing so fast, East Liberty never had a chance.”
At the same time that the east end fell victim to poor urban planning, suburbia provided a new variety of freedom for Americans that posed particular advantages and challenges to Jews. Now secure enough in their social status to dare to live outside of their densely-Jewish urban enclaves, Jews now made up a portion of religiously diverse neighborhoods on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, such as Fox Chapel, Mt. Lebanon, and Monroeville. Though this public religious anonymity was advantageous for some, for many others it proved to be a challenge in the personal and communal practice of Judaism. As American Jewish historian Hasia Diner described it, “outside the protective womb of the urban Jewish subculture, Judaism could no longer be absorbed, like sunshine, from the surrounding atmosphere.”
The need for Jewish affiliation and community led to the founding of suburban synagogues in suburbs across the United States, including the Pittsburgh suburbs, and the necessity for innovative ideas through which the practice of Judaism might accommodate suburban life. For example, Conservative Judaism “issued… an enactment (takkanah) declaring that ‘Where a family resides beyond reasonable walking distance from the synagogue, the use of a motor vehicle for the purpose of synagogue attendance shall in no wise be construed as a violation of the Sabbath but on the contrary, such attendance shall be deemed an expression of loyalty to our faith.’” Concessions such as this one contributed to the widespread adoption of Conservative synagogues in American suburbs, including Pittsburgh suburbs. In this era of suburban fluctuation, congregational affiliates of the Conservative movement increased by 450, “more than the then number of new Reform and Orthodox synagogues combined.”
Conservative Judaism is still very present in the foundation of suburban synagogues. In fact, Adat Shalom, which for more than twenty years has provided a home for the Jewish faith community in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, was founded on “middle-of-the-road, Conservative principles,” according to Rabbi Lehrer. However, today the philosophy of Adat Shalom has transformed further to accommodate the changing face of the congregation.
History of Adat Shalom and the Fox Chapel Jewish Community
Adat Shalom in Fox Chapel opened its sanctuary doors to North Hills Jews for the first time on September 14, 1996, on the evening of Rosh Hashanah.15 The building, which formerly served as a catholic girls’ school, Divine Providence Academy, was purchased in 1995 to build the first Conservative synagogue in the North Hills.
As “one of the most rapidly growing Jewish communities in the area,” the North Hills
Jewish Community united to raise membership and funds for a synagogue to call home. The result, Adat Shalom, which means “Congregation of Peace,” opened in 1996 to welcome more than 310 families, many of whom had been affiliated with two other congregations, Beth Jacob in New Kensington, and B’Nai Israel in East Liberty.15
According to an interview with Cindy Kichler, one of the leaders of the synagogue’s initial fundraising campaign, the founding of Adat Shalom was to “go where the people were and where a synagogue was needed.” She said that Jewish adults as well as their children have to cope with a sense of isolation when they move to the suburbs.
‘When you live in Squirrel Hill or other long-established Jewish communities, you constantly see Jewish people, Jewish things and synagogues when you walk outside. The mere presence of these things confirms your identity. But in the suburbs, those things aren’t there. When you move to the suburbs, you face not only a physical but an emotional and spiritual separation from your long established groups.’”
The location in Fox Chapel enabled the congregation to merge the New Kensington community with other Jews around the North Hills who lacked a home synagogue since moving away from the city. The inclusion of congregants and Judaica from B’nai Israel is a key piece of the suburban migration history of Pittsburgh Jews.
Just as the new synagogue in Fox Chapel provided a new home for Jews in the North Hills, it created a future for the sacred texts housed in it’s parent synagogues. Rabbi Lehrer noted that, in terms of Torah scrolls, Adat Shalom’s parent synagogues provided everything necessary for services, celebrations, and holidays. In fact, their sacred texts were so abundant that Adat Shalom was even able to donate some of their scrolls to congregations in Cuba. Though Adat Shalom has never had to commission a Torah of their own, the congregation takes care to ensure the longevity of their adopted scrolls by having them regularly inspected and meticulously repaired by a trained scribe in the congregation. Each scroll was repaired and marked with a hebrew letter at the base of its handle In the past, some scrolls that were not suited for repair have been interred according to Jewish tradition. Though little is known specifically about the sacred texts from B’nai Israel, some of them do have a special feature that distinguishes them among the others: hand-stitched covers made by the congregants. These covers serve to protect the structural integrity of scrolls, as well as commemorate certain dates, celebrations, or congregants. These covers are used to this day at Adat Shalom, reminding the congregation of the history on which their community is founded. Adat Shalom has also salvaged the stained glass, Yahrzeit plaques, and other Judaica from B’nai Israel. The Torahs are exclusively Ashkenazic in tradition, and are copied traditionally by trained scribes on animal parchment.
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Diner, Hasia R.. The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004.
Personal Interviews with Rabbi Yair Lehrer and Andrea Lehman. February 27, 2017.
“Lower Hill District before Demolition.” Historic Pittsburgh. Accessed March 19, 2017. http://www.historicpittsburgh.org/islandora/object/pitt%3AMSP285.B033.F05.I10.
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Kidney, Walter C., Henry Hornbostel: An Architect’s Master Touch. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation & Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 2002
“Pittsburgh: From The Beginning.” The Jewish Chronicle (Pittsburgh), 2005. Accessed March 19, 2017. http://www.jewishhistoryhhc.org/uploads/Jewish%20Chronicle_Jewish%20Life_Fall%201991_v1_10_b.pdf.
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“East Liberty Then: initial makeover had dismal results.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania), 2000. Accessed March 16, 2017. http://old.post-gazette.com/businessnews/20000523intro3.asp
“A NEW PLACE TO WORSHIP; ADAT SHALOM SYNAGOGUE READY FOR YOM KIPPUR.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 22, 1996. Accessed: 2017/03/19.
“She saw a need, so new synagogue is under way.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 19, 1995, Accessed: 2017/03/19.
1904 Volume 2 – East End of Pittsburgh (North): Wards 18-21 and 37: Historic Pittsburgh. http://digital.library.pitt.edu/maps/04v02ind.html
Penn Circle: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 2013. http://www.post-gazette.com/local/2013/11/25/Pittsburgh-City-Council-to-consider-Penn-Circle-street-name-changes/stories/201311250149?pgpageversion=pgevoke
Adat Shalom Library: Jewish Criterion, June 21, 2001. http://doi.library.cmu.edu/10.1184/pmc/CHR/CHR_2001_041_007_06212001