On October 8th, 1996, a fire surged through Congregation Beth Shalom, a synagogue located in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. Despite the total damages being valued at one million dollars, some of articles damaged in the fire were priceless. The fire took more than a physical and emotional toll, it also took a spiritual toll when invaluable Torah scrolls were decimated by the flames along with other significant Jewish artifacts. Though the burned scrolls cannot be precisely identified, most assume that the scrolls were from the defunct Homestead Hebrew Congregation that had transferred its ark, Torah scrolls, and other artifacts to Congregation Beth Shalom only three years earlier. A few days later, the remains of the scrolls were buried (as per Jewish custom) in the Homestead cemetery. The burial site of the Torah Scrolls exists today as a commemoration of the once thriving Jewish community in Homestead, Pennsylvania.
During the fire in 1996, all but two Torah scrolls at Beth Shalom were saved by firefighters and local volunteers. The two that perished had been stored in the Homestead Chapel, a room used by youth congregation of Beth Shalom that was full of artifacts from the recently closed Homestead Hebrew Congregation.
The Homestead Hebrew Congregation officially began in 1894. Erected only a few decades after the construction of Homestead’s steel mill, the synagogue was founded by Eastern European Jews and operated according to traditional Orthodox customs. At its height, the synagogue served over a hundred Jewish families in Homestead and was home to famed philanthropists Jack Skirball and Jacob Rader Marcus as well as modern day actor Jeff Goldblum. By the 1950s, as Pittsburgh Jews increasingly centralized around Squirrel Hill, involvement in the Homestead Congregation waned. Despite their best efforts, the synagogue ultimately closed in the early 1990s.
After the congregation’s almost one-hundred-year story came to a close, many former members cherished Beth Shalom’s Homestead Chapel as a testament to their history. The room featured many retired sacred objects from Homestead Hebrew Congregation, including the Torah Scrolls, the Aron Kodesh (an ark, or a special cabinet-like structure that houses Torah Scrolls), yahrzeit plaques (plaques that commemorate members of the congregation who have passed away), and other traditional Jewish ritual and commemorative objects. Though the fire destroyed the majority of these Homestead artifacts, the testament to their once-thriving community continued when the former members of Homestead Hebrew Congregation and current members of Congregation Beth Shalom came together to bury the destroyed Torah scrolls. The burial site continues to commemorate the history of Homestead’s Jews.
Homestead Jewry and the Homestead Hebrew Congregation
Before closing in 1993, Homestead Hebrew Congregation had a rich and storied past of almost one hundred years. The Congregation was the principal if not the only synagogue for the steel-mill town of Homestead. Officially opening in 1894, Homestead Hebrew Congregation served thousands of people in three different buildings and hired 21 different Rabbis. Over the course of its existence, Homestead Hebrew Congregation was a significant part of the Jewish life in the Pittsburgh region.
Jewish Homesteading: Early 1800s-1900
In the 1800s as settlers began to stay in Homestead, the only Jewish presence was transitory. Jewish peddlers would come and go and sell their wares to local residents who didn’t have easy access to goods. The first recorded Jewish resident was Abraham Skirball (originally Skiersobolski) in 1865. An immigrant from Lithuania, he lived in Homestead for 23 years as a salesman. His youngest son, Jack Skirball, became a famous film producer, real estate developer, and philanthropist; in fact, many places in New York and Los Angeles still bear his name today .
Shortly after the steel mill was constructed in 1880, four Jewish families and a few working single men were recorded as living in Homestead. In March of 1894, the Jewish community had grown just enough to establish a synagogue, and Homestead Hebrew Congregation Rodef Shalom received its state charter and officially opened, though they did not erect their own synagogue building until 1901. With 18 members (all males, some of whom represented their household), the synagogue served two-thirds of the Homestead Jewish community. A few months later, Samuel J. Featherman began to serve as the congregation’s first Rabbi. Later, in 1896, the congregation purchased land for their first cemetery. The congregation practiced the traditional rites normally adopted by immigrant Jews from eastern Europe.
Jewish Immigrants 1900s-1930s
Due to Russian pogroms and widespread poverty, there was an influx of Russian Jewish immigrants to the United States at the turn of the century. Because of this, Homestead Hebrew Congregation quickly filled their synagogue building to capacity during this period. There were a number of active Jewish community groups, including the Hebrew Political Society, Homestead Zion Society, and even a Jewish boys basketball team.
The synagogue fared relatively well in the early twentieth century despite the widespread financial difficulties that accompanied the 1930s. At the time, there were about 1,100 Jewish residents in Homestead. Due to the global political climate, there was increased drive among the Homestead Jewish community to help European Jewry . In spite of the tragedies unfolding in Europe the synagogue thrived and boasted a plethora of social activities, including plays, dances, picnics, and other community events. This prosperity lasted through the 1940s, though the overall Jewish population of Homestead declined to about 600 people and congregants began to move to more fashionable neighborhoods like Squirrel Hill.
Although the town of Homestead enjoyed its heyday during the 1950s, the downward turn of the Jewish community foretold the eventual decline of the area. Many Jewish residents were moving to Squirrel Hill which had become the larger and more popular Jewish community within the city limits of Pittsburgh. Additionally, the synagogue remained Orthodox even though many of the congregants were moving towards Reform and Conservative Judaism. No new families were joining the synagogue.
As the steel industry declined throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the synagogue still made an effort to function as the Jewish population quickly decreased. Despite membership campaigns and other efforts, participation continued to dwindle.
In the 1980s, there were a few loyal members who continued to attend services. The synagogue celebrated their last wedding in 1988. Then, in 1989, the synagogue stopped holding Saturday morning services, and the last High Holiday services were probably held in 1991. Ultimately, the synagogue was facing financial difficulties and so the last members made the difficult decision to close the synagogue. Iris Stein Nahemow, a loyal member to Homestead Hebrew Congregation, described the last years of the synagogue:
“The congregation did not, did not die an easy death. It struggled on for so many years beyond it’s really being viable. Which says a lot about how those people, who were left, really cared. Had they had a more expensive building to maintain, had they had less resources, there, because, you know, in the end they had no rabbi, they really had no expenses. In many other communities they never would not have been able to have hung on as long.”
Before the synagogue closed, a project of preservation was undertaken by the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center and the synagogue was extensively photographed by Lockwood Hoehl.
Today, Beth Shalom’s youth congregation uses replicas of the items from the Homestead Chapel lost in the fire.
Although the Homestead Hebrew Congregation closed, its legacy remains thanks to the incredible efforts of Congregation Beth Shalom, the Heinz History Museum, and independent researcher Tammy Hepps.
Burial of Torah Scrolls
After the Beth Shalom fire, firemen collected the remaining pieces of the two gravely damaged Torah Scrolls. Members then gathered those pieces into an unadorned wooden box, held a funeral service in its honor, and lowered its modest remains into the ground. The reasons behind the burial of the Torah scrolls are historical, practical, emotional, and deeply spiritual.
Jews have long been instructed by both Biblical and Rabbinical authority to preserve the Hebrew names of God. Tracing back to the Torah itself, Jews are commanded to treat God with special honor:
“Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site. Do not worship the LORD your God in like manner…” (Deutoronmy 12:3-4)
In other words, according to this verse, one may desecrate the names of worship for other Gods, but one should never do so for the Jewish God. This passage was later interpreted by Rabbis in the Talmud (an ancient, canonized text of Jewish law) to mean that God’s Hebrew names must not be destroyed. Therefore, according to rabbinic Jewish law, the Hebrew words for “God” are sacred and any object upon which God’s name exists cannot be thrown out, incinerated, erased, or defaced in any way. This rule applies to the extent that “if one had a sacred name of God written on his skin he may neither wash it in water lest it be erased, nor may he smear it with oil, nor may he stand in a place of filth because it is disrespectful of God’s name” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 120b).
This commandment left ancient Rabbis with a very practical conundrum: how were Jews supposed to respect God’s Hebrew names when they are inscribed on decayed or damaged surfaces? Wouldn’t it be equally disrespectful to praise God using worn-out objects? The tradition stands as follows: If the object is no longer usable, it should be stored away and left to nature. The particular method by which invalid objects should be stored away has evolved over time; however, today, the two most common methods have been to place them in a protected vesicle or to bury them in the ground. One example of the precedence for burial is found in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (a famous medieval compendium of Jewish law) when he states that “[When God’s] name is written on a utensil, one should cut off [God’s] name and bury it,” (Yad, Yesodei Hatorah, 6:1-6:6, italics mine). Extending this case, it is thought that any object with God’s Hebrew name should be buried.
The place in which the objects with God’s name are buried or stored is called a Genizah. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia,
GENIZAH (Heb. גְּנִיזָה; literally “storing”), a place for storing books or ritual objects which have become unusable. The genizah was usually a room attached to the synagogue where books and ritual objects containing the name of God – which cannot be destroyed according to Jewish law – were buried when they wore out and could no longer be used in the normal ritual. One of the most famous examples of a Genizah is the Cairo Genizah, which offered modern scholars access to a treasure trove of books and historical records that were not destroyed out of the suspicion that they might include the name of God.
In the case of a retired Torah scroll, God’s name is literally written thousands of times. Thus, for Jews, its spiritual value extends beyond its narrative, meticulous construction, and its history, and it cannot be thrown out. However, many Torah scrolls are not simply placed into a Genizah without ceremony. Since Torah scrolls are uniquely connected to their community as sacred objects, there is often a special recognition when those Torahs are no longer usable, particularly if the Torah scroll was made invalid by unnatural means. Just as variegated as the traditions themselves are the methods by which different congregations honor their damaged Torah scrolls.
In the case of the the scrolls that were damaged in the Beth Shalom blaze, the Torah scrolls were buried at the Homestead Cemetery. At the time, the cemetery was the only officially remaining entity that belonged to the Homestead Hebrew Congregation, so it seemed fitting to bury the scrolls in that space.
After the scrolls were destroyed in the fire, firefighters collected the remaining pieces and gave them to Synagogue officials.
On December 15th, 1993, the congregation and other members of the Pittsburgh community gathered for a burial ceremony. Synagogue personnel led special prayers, offered statements, then began a funeral procession. A small box that contained the leftover fragments was then lowered into the ground, joining other members of the community who were laid to rest in the 100 year old Homestead Cemetery.
How did Homestead’s Torah scrolls end up at Beth Shalom in the first place?
In January of 1993, the president of the Homestead Congregation, Robert Katz, approached Congregation Beth Shalom about the possibility of re-housing their ritual items in the Squirrel Hill congregation.. As with most congregations, it was difficult to part with their judaica, but as “a lot of Homesteaders joined Beth Shalom…we felt it was a natural progression to send our judaica there.” Most of these objects had been collected over years and years. The judaica that were transferred were five Torah scrolls, two Purim megillot (scrolls telling the story of Purim), and an ark. Even though there were many who felt heartbroken over the closing of the Homestead Congregation, many also felt that the donations to Beth Shalom were “a symbol of remembrance for [their] community.”
The fire broke out unexpectedly in October 1996. Ira Frank, a lay-leader of Beth Shalom who went into the burning building in order to salvage torah scrolls and records, was able to tell us about what happened that day at Beth Shalom.
On the day of the fire, Ira and another member rushed down to Beth Shalom as soon as they heard that their beloved congregation was on fire. He said that the flames could be seen from the Liberty Bridge. When they arrived at Beth Shalom, his friend said to him that they needed to go inside and save the torah scrolls. After saving the torah scrolls that were in the main sanctuary, they went to the fourth floor gym, where many of the other scrolls were. The roof had caved in and there were several feet of water on the ground. The two Homestead torahs that were lost in the fire had already been gravely damaged by the time he got to the gym.
As the fire went on and Ira and his peers aided the firefighters in rescuing some of the ritual objects that were inside the synagogue, many people from among the community arrived to see if they could help. After the fire was put out, they stayed close to the shul to make sure no one went inside to try and recover any more objects, as the building was deemed structurally unsound and they could get hurt or trapped inside the building. The fire took an exceptionally long time to douse and there was a lot of fear that the building would go up in flames again. Luckily, no one lost their lives during the blaze, though some firefighters had been mildly injured and two Torah scrolls were lost.
More than 200 members of the congregation came to the burial of the Homestead scrolls. The event was very important to many members of the community because it allowed them to grieve together, while also recognizing how fortunate they had been to lose really just those Torah scrolls in the fire, rather than any of the lives that had been in that building before the fire raged.
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Bull, John M.R. “Damaged Beth Shalom Torahs Buried in Somber Rite” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 16 December 1996, 1. (qtd. in Hepps, “Torah Burial.”)
Fader, Marc. “A Casket holding Beth Shalom’s damaged scrolls is lowered into grave at Homestead Hebrew Cemetery in West Mifflin.” Pittsburgh Tribute-Review, pg B1, 26 December 1996. (qtd in Hepps “Scroll Burial”)
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McNulty, Timothy. “Members use crowbar to open ark.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Oct. 1996
Nahemow, Iris Stein. “Homestead Hebrew Congregation Oral History Project.” Interview by Anne Sheckter Powel. Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center, August 1993. jewishfamilieshistory.org/audio/iris-stein-nahemow-oral-history/?post_id=249149
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Smooke, Allen. “Chronology.” Tammy Hepp’s Homestead Hebrews, http://www.homesteadhebrews.com