What class and cultural differences shaped early Pittsburgh Judaism?

Faith, Race, Place examines how Pittsburgh’s fractured religious landscape formed and how historical divides are confronted in the present.

In the early 1900s, Rodef Shalom had a swimming pool for about 10 years.

It was a fairly common feature in large, wealthy American synagogues at the time, said Rodef Shalom archivist Martha Berg. Jews also sought their places of worship to function as community centers. (One historian has dubbed it the “shul with a pool” trend, “shul” being another name for a synagogue.)

Its existence said much about the social dynamic that shaped Pittsburgh Judaism.

For one, Rodef Shalom got his pool because Jews were not allowed to use the pool at the neighboring YMCA in the early 1900s.

Although Pittsburgh Jews sometimes suffered blatant acts of anti-Semitism, historian Barbara Burstin said, this type of “cold, gentle discrimination” was more common. Shut out from dominant spaces, they had no choice but to build parallel businesses – in business and in leisure.

A stained glass window at Rodef Shalom. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

But Rodef Shalom also had a pool because it had wealthy members who could afford to donate it. In this sense, the pool appeals to social hierarchies within Pittsburgh Judaism. And within Pittsburgh Jewry, Rodef was a force to be reckoned with.

“It’s hard to overstate how powerful and important it was,” said Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. “Their leaders were the leaders of all the major Jewish organizations in the city.”

Ethnicity played a role, though not a simple one, Lidji warns. Pittsburgh’s earliest Jews were mostly German. When they founded Rodef Shalom in 1861, it was a German Jewish community.

In the 1880s through the early 20th century, Pittsburgh Judaism diversified. Jobs in the burgeoning steel industry brought a flood of Eastern European immigrants.

Overall, Eastern European Jews tend to be poorer and less educated than German-Jewish immigrants of previous generations, Burstin said. They also tended to be more orthodox (they strictly adhered to traditional beliefs and practices) and Zionist (advocated a Jewish nation or state – eventually leading to the formation of the modern State of Israel).

“We have faced difficulties before and have overcome them.”

Barbara Burstin

They were just new too. By 1900, some German-Jewish families had lived in Pittsburgh for 40, 50, even 60 years, Lidji said. The East Europeans did not have these cultural bases.

The resulting divisions and resentments led East Europeans, much like the Germans, to start their own businesses that had parallels not only with the dominant white Protestant culture, but also with German-Jewish ones.

Eastern European Jews have no equivalent to Rodef Shalom, Lidji said. For one thing, they couldn’t afford it. But religiously it wouldn’t have made any sense either. Many Eastern Europeans were Orthodox, and Orthodox Jews do not drive on the Sabbath. These communities tended to set up small neighborhood synagogues—the kind you still see in the Squirrel Hill landscape.

The current building by Rodef Shalom was completed in 1907. Although the community was originally predominantly of German descent, it has since diversified. (Photos courtesy of Rodef Shalom Congregation Archives)

Today, no one thinks of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community in terms of German vs. Eastern Europeans, Burstin said. As Lidji explained, the lines began to disintegrate after World War II.

Still, it’s important to know the past, Burstin argued. Some of today’s threats—anti-Semitism on the outside or apathy on the inside—are long-standing problems for Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.

Knowing history also fosters resilience in the face of new challenges, she said, such as security concerns communities have been facing since the October 2018 Tree of Life massacre.

“We have faced difficulties before and have overcome them.”

Chris Hedlin is PublicSource’s Faith and Religion Reporter. She can be reached at chris@publicsource.org or on Twitter at @ChristineHedlin.

This story was fact checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.

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Mike Hunter

Mike is the owner of the local pool shop. He's been in the business for over 20 years and knows everything there is to know about pools. He's always happy to help his customers with whatever they need, whether it's advice on pool maintenance or choosing the right chemicals. He's also a bit of a pool expert, and is always happy to share his knowledge with anyone who's interested.

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