Poale Zedeck/Beth Jacob Torah

The Poale Zedeck/ Beth Jacob Torah

Introduction

This Torah scroll is currently housed by Congregation Poale Zedeck in Squirrel Hill, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Pittsburgh. Before landing in its current home, the members of Congregation Beth Jacob in Duquesne used it for their ritual purposes. Congregation Beth Jacob built its first synagogue in 1908 and provided a place for Orthodox Jews to worship and socialize. When the congregation disbanded in 1977 due to a dwindling population, they found new homes for their scrolls and ritual objects. 

While this Torah is now damaged and no longer fir for ritual purposes, it is still an important reminder of both the formation and the disbanding of Jewish communities in Western Pennsylvania. Both Congregation Beth Jacob and Poale Zedeck were formed by immigrants looking for economic opportunities in a new place, and who created houses of worship as they built new lives in the United States. They found stable communities that supported them through the difficult process of immigration and acculturation. Though the Jewish community in Duquesne did not survive the breakdown of the steel industry, the Torah continues to serve as a reminder of the history of the Jews of Duquesne.

History of Jewish Community in Squirrel Hill 

The first Jewish immigrants arrived in the greater Pittsburgh area around the mid 1800s, where they collectively bought a plot of land to use as a Jewish cemetery. In 1852, there were 30 Jewish families in Pittsburgh who had migrated from Central Europe, and by 1858 this number had doubled. Following the Civil War, the number of Jews in 1864 grew to 750.

By 1877 there were 2,000 Jews in Pittsburgh, many of them recent immigrants from Eastern Europe who found economic opportunity in the industry-rich area. Pittsburgh continued to grow a steel and iron town, conveniently located on three rivers. The Russian pogroms of 1881 set in motion the mass exodus which brought Russian Jews to America, and the industrial boom in Pittsburgh made it an attractive destination for them as well. By 1917, the 2000 Jews in Pittsburgh had grown to a community of 38,000.

The Johnson-Reed Act in 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed into the United States, drastically reducing the number of Jews that would have otherwise moved to America.  The end to the flood of immigration following the Johnson-Reed Act, coupled with the economic boom of the 1920s, led to growing financial security among the Jews who were fortunate enough to have made it to the United States before 1924. Increasing numbers of Jews around the country had the means to leave their immigrant slums. In Pittsburgh, immigrant Jews had been living primarily in the Hill District at the turn of the century, working in stogy making factories.  Greater financial security meant that the Jewish community was able to move to an area with better infrastructure, resources, and amenities, and Squirrel Hill became a popular destination for them.

The population of Squirrel Hill increased rapidly in the 1920s, when development of the automobile allowed people to move around more freely and the construction of main roads such as the Boulevard of the Allies linked Squirrel Hill to downtown Pittsburgh. By the 1930s Squirrel Hill became the center of Jewish culture in the city, with kosher butcher shops, delicatessens, Jewish restaurants, bookstores, and designer boutiques lining the business district of Forbes and Murray Avenues. The Irene Kaufmann Settlement, which had served as a community center for Jews living in the Hill District, opened a Jewish Community Center on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill in 1943 to serve the Jewish community in their new locale.

Today, Squirrel Hill remains one of the largest and most well-organized Jewish populations in the country.  Squirrel Hill is currently home to over twenty different synagogues that provide services to this thriving Jewish population, of which four are Orthodox.

History of the Jewish community in Duquesne

By 1920, Western Pennsylvania was producing one third of the nation’s steel as well as forty percent of the nation’s coal.  As this industry grew, not only did the population of Pittsburgh swell, but so did the population of the entire Western Pennsylvania region. Duquesne was an industry town that depended on the steel industry. Duquesne was home to the impressive Duquesne Works steel mill that belonged to U.S. Steel, and it was also home to the largest blast furnace in the world, nicknamed “Dorothy Six”.

While Jews were not necessarily involved in the steel industry, a large part of the businesses in the commercial district of Duquesne were Jewish owned, including a grocery store and a car dealership. This growth in both economy and population gave financial security to many business owners, and over time, Duquesne’s Jewish community began to spread out and move to McKeesport or Pittsburgh while continuing to operate their businesses in Duquesne. Because of these migrations, the Jewish population of Duquesne ended up falling to a little more than 200 people by the late 1950s.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the deindustrialization of Western Pennsylvania leveled a huge blow to the region and to the city of Duquesne. Duquesne’s population peaked in the 1930’s with around 21,000 people and began to decline with the strike as economic opportunities moved away from Duquesne. Today, Duquesne’s population hovers around 5,600 and has never emerged from its economic rut.

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 Beth Jacob Synagogue, Duquesne, the original home of the torah scroll. Courtesy of the Rauh Jewish Archives.

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Poale Zedeck on Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, where the torah scroll currently resides
History of Beth Jacob 

Formed in 1897, Congregation Beth Jacob was one of the earliest congregations to be incorporated in Duquesne. Beth Jacob was home to Orthodox Jews who emigrated mostly from Lithuania. By 1908, they raised enough money to open their first synagogue building on the corner of S. First Street and Viola Avenue. Serving 600 members at the turn of the century, the building was brick and stone and cost around 28,000 dollars to complete. On Easter Sunday 1922, the original synagogue burned down; it was rebuilt at 17 N. Second Street and dedicated July 12, 1925.  The congregation remained in this location until it merged with Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, another Orthodox congregation, in August of 1964 and moved to a building on Colwell Street in downtown Pittsburgh. Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob now acts as a synagogue for Pittsburgh Jews who work downtown. It is the oldest Orthodox congregation in Pittsburgh.

The most important figure in Beth Jacob’s history was Rabbi Aaron M. Ashinksy. Born in Poland in 1867, he and his wife came to Pittsburgh in 1901. He initially served as the rabbi of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, but assumed rabbinic duties at numerous other synagogues, including Beth Jacob in May 1904. Ashinsky’s presence in the Orthodox community was vital, and he created several social agencies for Jewish immigrants during the first two decades of the 20th century to help them adjust to life in America. Ashinsky was a primary organizer of the Mizrachi Zionist Organization, the World Jewish Congress, and was an American delegate for several world Zionist conferences in Europe. From 1914 to 1924, Ashinsky headed the Central Relief and raised over $100,000. He was involved in numerous relief and political movements and helped to really develop the Jewish community of Pittsburgh.

History of Congregation Poale Zedeck

Poale Zedeck Congregation, the institution that currently houses this Torah, was established in 1881 by Hungarian Jewish immigrants in a rented room on the corner of Grant Street and Second Avenue downtown. At that time, the congregation had forty member families who were meeting in the second floor of a building.  When the congregation outgrew its space, it purchased a house on Federal (later called Fernando) Street in the Hill District, the area of the city in which newly arriving Jewish immigrants were settling.  The house was renovated and served as the synagogue until 1900. In 1901, the growing congregation purchased a building on Crawford and Rose Streets, which burned down in 1916 and was rebuilt. The Crawford building was also in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where it remained until 1929, when the congregation was able to follow its upwardly-mobile membership and build a synagogue on Shady and Phillips Avenue in Squirrel Hill.  With this act, Poale Zedeck became the first Orthodox Jewish synagogue in the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill.

In addition to providing synagogue services, Poale Zedeck provides an abundance of other services to the community.  The Rabbi Joseph Shapiro Education Center opened in 1956 on an adjacent property on Phillips Street and housed classrooms for the congregation’s nursery school and Hebrew school.  In 1961, the congregation joined with the United Mental Health Services of Allegheny County to provide education and counseling to Jewish and non-Jewish children with psychological problems and disabilities.  The Shapiro Education Center, which opened in 1975, is utilized by the members of the community for special education programs for Jewish children with physical disabilities.  The Congregation has also maintained an active sisterhood, men’s club, and Chevra Kadisah (lit: Holy Society) which attends to and memorializes the deceased.  The congregation boasts about 300 member families today.

Works Cited

Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob Congregation Records, 1880-2005, MSS#438, Rauh Jewish Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center.

Berg, Martha. “History.” Website of Rodef Shalom. 19 Aug. 2015, https://rodefshalom.org/about/history

Burstin, Barbara S. Steel City Jews: A History of Pittsburgh and its Jewish Community, Pittsburgh, 2008.

“Congregation Beth Jacob (Duquesne).” Rauh Jewish Archives and Heinz History Center. 10 Oct. 2016. http://www.jewishfamilieshistory.org/photo/congregation-beth-jacob-duquesne/?post_id=251022

Website of Congregation Poale Zedeck. <http://pzonline.wixsite.com/home&gt;.

Finding Aid: Congregation Poale Zedeck Records. Rauh Jewish Archives, 2006.

Hoerr, John P. And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the American Steel Industry. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988

Hogan, William T. Economic History of the Iron and Steel Industry in the United States. Lexington, Mass: Heath, 1971.

Iskovitz, Mark, and Helen Wilson. “Squirrel Hill Historical Society: Squirrel Hill                      History.” Squirrel Hill Historical Society, http://squirrelhillhistory.org/index.php?sqh_history

Finding Aid: Irene Kaufmann Settlement. Rauh Jewish Archives.

Finding Aid: Poale Zedeck Synagogue. Rauh Jewish Archives

Rabbi A.M. Ashinsky Papers, 1904-1970, MSS 222, Rauh Jewish Archives, Thomas and           Katherine Detre Library and Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center.

Tiffany, Paul A. The Decline of American Steel: How Management, Labor, and                              Government Went Wrong. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

 

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