Squirrel Hill has been the center of Jewish life in Pittsburgh for 100 years, but the city’s Jewish roots extend far beyond it. From the trendy Strip to bustling Downtown and into the Hill District and the North Side where early immigrants settled, evidence of Jewish influence can be found citywide.
Jewish visitors will discover what many Pittsburghers have long known: This is a great place to be Jewish.
Those unfamiliar with the area may also be surprised to learn that once-sooty Pittsburgh has been named the nation’s most livable city by The Economist magazine and the best all-American vacation spot by the Travel Channel.
Although Jews did not begin settling en masse in Pittsburgh until the 1830s, they played a key role in the city’s early development. In the 1750s, the Jewish firm Simon and Franks was England’s chief supplier of goods, aiding the British military in their struggle with the French for control of the territory. The area’s importance centered on its strategic location, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers converge to form the Ohio River.
Around 1760, shortly after Pittsburgh was named for William Pitt, Andrew Levy—believed to be its first Jewish resident—arrived. Levy opened a trading store but soon fled, troubled by the insecurity of the frontier and the lack of a Jewish community. By the time German Jews began moving here in the 1830s, Pittsburgh was already known for the smog from coal burning and iron production. That didn’t deter opportunity seekers.
In 1850, there were 30 Jewish families, most living in Allegheny City—now Pittsburgh’s North Side. Lithuanian and Polish Jews and a colony of Dutch Jews began arriving in the 1860s; later, they were joined by Jews fleeing the Russian pogroms. Less affluent East Europeans, including Hungarian and Galician Jews, settled on the Hill.
By 1900, Pittsburgh’s Jewish population had expanded to 13,000, and peaked at 55,000 by 1930. Wealthy Jews began moving to Squirrel Hill as early as the 1890s, but the migration continued until well after World War I.
In their early years, German Jews went into dry goods, liquor, livestock, tobacco and glass manufacturing. East Europeans, some starting out as peddlers, slowly opened their own businesses, many as wholesale suppliers of linens and housewares. Later, Jewish industrialists invested in steel, coal, copper alloy and concrete, and Jews dominated the clothing market, eventually owning the area’s most prestigious department stores. Chief among them was Kaufmann’s, best known for its flagship downtown store.
Pittsburgh also played a key role in the American Reform movement. In 1885, about 20 years after the area’s first synagogue, Rodef Shalom, transitioned from Orthodox to Reform, the city hosted the national conference that issued the Pittsburgh Platform, a set of principles guiding Reform Judaism.
There are about 42,000 Jews (and 35 congregations) in the city and its suburbs. Nearly half live in and around Squirrel Hill. Besides the distinction of having remained in the same locale for a century, this is the most urban-based Jewish population outside of New York, says Franklin Toker, a University of Pittsburgh professor and historian. While more of the area’s Jews define themselves as Reform than any other denomination, Squirrel Hill has a thriving Orthodox community and a seven-mile eruv that stretches around its perimeter and beyond.
Conservative Beth Shalom Congregation (5915 Beacon Street) in Squirrel Hill today serves nearly 800 families. It began with about 35 families meeting above a theater in 1917 and opened its first shul in the early 1920s. The congregation later added to the building, which was damaged by fire in the late 1990s and then restored.
The community boasts an annual Jewish film festival, Jewish museum and Sports Hall of Fame, housed in the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill (5738 Forbes Avenue). Other undertakings include the Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project, with archives spanning well over a century of local Jewish papers; Jewish archives at the Heinz history center; and the oral history project of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women. J’Burgh, a project of the Hillel Jewish University Center, offers graduate students and young professionals an opportunity to network.
The city is also home to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh (412-681-8000), which launched in 2014 the Jewish Community Scorecard. The first-of-its-kind scorecard is an online, constantly expanding set of metrics that measure the efficacy of Jewish organizations and programs. The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh (412-421-1500) is poised to move into a new home in Squirrel Hill. Hadassah Greater Pittsburgh, founded in 1916 by a handful of women, now has close to 3,000 members.
Until 2013, the community included Evelyn Kozak, the world’s oldest Jew on record. After moving to Squirrel Hill at the age of 90 (and playing Scrabble until she was 95), Kozak was 113 when she died.
The Senator John Heinz History Center (1212 Smallman Street) in the Strip is a good place to start a tour. Set in an old industrial neighborhood filled with ethnic shops, sidewalk markets and converted warehouses, the center—affiliated since 2000 with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington—occupies a renovated ice warehouse.
Highlights include an interactive exhibit of Pittsburgh innovations including the Salk polio vaccine and a World War II exhibit featuring Rosie the Riveter—an image based on the work of a local artist. Other exhibits highlight distinctive city neighborhoods, along with the television neighborhood of Pittsburgh’s own Mr. Rogers.
The Heinz center is also home to the Rauh Jewish Archives, which feature photos, articles and stories about dozens of Pittsburgh’s Jewish families, a Jewish timeline dating from 1840 and a handful of colorful exhibits.
From here, head Downtown to the corner of Fifth Avenue and Smithfield Street to stand under the iconic Kaufmann clock, a meeting place for generations of residents. The 13-story building alongside it, most recently a Macy’s, was until 2006 the Kaufmann department store, and the name is still visible on the façade. The original clock, erected when the store opened in 1887, was a freestanding tower. It was replaced with an ornate attached clock in 1913 to coincide with an expansion of the building. A city proclamation designated May 17, 2013—the 100th anniversary of its installation—Meet Me Under the Clock Day.
East of Downtown lies the Hill District, where East European Jews—long known as Hill Hebrews—lived for decades. Here you will find the Zion Hill Full Gospel Church at 2043 Webster Avenue, the former Kether Torah synagogue. Built in 1920, its past is easily recognizable by the huge Star of David above the entrance. Nearby is Enon Baptist Church at 110 Erin Street, a patchwork brick building thought to have been built by members of Anshe Lubovitch. The mikves in both have been turned into baptismal fonts.
Before leaving the Hill, visit the site of the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House, built by the Kaufmanns in memory of their daughter. Part of the house was demolished in the 1960s, but the auditorium (1835 Centre Avenue), restored and reopened five years ago, is a popular entertainment venue for theater and musical performances.
Across the Allegheny River on the North Side lies a stately Italianate house at 850 Beech Avenue, identified by a plaque as the birthplace of writer Gertrude Stein. Visit the 1300 block of Liverpool Street about a mile away, which features a row of elegantly restored townhouses with verandas. In the 1880s, when German Jews owned many of these homes, the area was called North Jerusalem.
From here, cross into Oakland, Pittsburgh’s educational hub—home to the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon and many Jewish sights. Stop at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum (4141 Fifth Avenue) to see a bust of Captain Jacob Brunn, a Jewish Civil War hero.
The first Union officer from Allegheny County to die in the war, Brunn received a hero’s funeral, with military escort, brass band, city dignitaries and his men—prisoners released by the Confederates—as pallbearers. Brunn is buried at Troy Hill Cemetery, aka Bes Almon (2518 Mount Troy Road), the area’s earliest Jewish burial site. Although the gravestone lists his date of death as 1861, Brunn actually died a year later.
Across Forbes Avenue along Schenley Park and the Pitt campus are the remnants of Forbes Field, the first ballpark constructed of all steel and concrete. Built at the behest of Jewish Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss, its home plate is preserved under glass inside nearby Posvar Hall (230 South Bouquet Street; 412-624-4141). Outside of Posvar Hall is a plaque commemorating Dreyfuss as a “legendary baseball leader influential in initiating the first modern World Series….” Forbes Field has its own commemorative plaque standing near a chunk of an old outfield wall, lauding its four World Series wins and Babe Ruth’s last three home runs.
In Schenley Plaza at the entrance to the park sits the Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain. Cast of bronze and granite in 1918, it depicts a reclining Pan and a female figure, Harmony, standing over him playing a lyre. Its creator was sculptor Victor Brenner, a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant best known for designing the Lincoln penny.
It’s impossible to miss Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning, a 535-foot Gothic revival building that towers over much of the city. Commissioned in 1921, the 42-story cathedral (4200 Fifth Avenue) is the tallest educational building in the nation and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its Commons Room alone spans four stories—a great hall set off by imposing ornamental iron gates crafted by Samuel Yellin, a Polish Jew and master ironworker.
The cathedral is also known for its 29 nationality rooms, each representing a different country: The Israel Heritage Room was dedicated in 1987. Designed to look like an early stone dwelling in the Galilee, the room features a floor mosaic like that of a sixth-century synagogue, a 3,000-pound frieze inspired by a design in a second-century synagogue and a menora and festival symbol like those in a fourth-century synagogue in Asia Minor. A professor’s lectern replicates a first-century table excavated in Jerusalem.
Other Pitt buildings with a Jewish connection include Bellefield Hall (315 Bellefield Avenue; 412-624-4125), a former YM-YWHA; Salk Hall (3501 Terrace Street; 412-624-4141), the art deco building where Jonas Salk, as a Pitt faculty member, worked on developing the polio vaccine; and UPMC Montefiore (3459 Fifth Avenue; 412-647-2345). The hospital, originally on the Hill, was founded in 1908 as the area’s first Jewish hospital and moved to its current site in 1928.
A few blocks east at 4905 Fifth Avenue in Shadyside stands the massive Rodef Shalom Congregation (412-621-6566), whose architect was Henry Hornbostel. Completed in 1907, the synagogue is on the National Register of Historic Places. Elements of its design, which incorporates a 90-foot double dome covered in green terra cotta, a cube-like sanctuary and an ornamental crescent-shaped entrance, have been likened to the Great Synagogue of Rome and Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. Its sanctuary seats more than 1,200 people and features stained-glass windows from its previous home downtown on 8th Street as well as a dazzling rainbow-like lunette and light that floods in from the dome’s stained-glass skylight.
Outside, a constellation of four figures (titled Procession and created by artist Elbert Weinberg) creates a spiritual feel: One wears a talit and carries a Torah, two hold an open prayer book and another holds a menora. The sculptures were at an Ohio synagogue for decades before moving to Rodef Shalom.
The Biblical Garden, which visitors can tour from June 1 to September 15, features plants and grains valued by the ancient Israelites. The garden’s creators—a rabbi emeritus and his wife—designed a waterfall, a “desert” and representations of a meandering River Jordan, Lake Galilee and the Dead Sea.
From here, it’s a short distance to a 21st-century sight, the Keeping Tabs Holocaust Memorial at the Community Day School in Squirrel Hill (6424 Forward Avenue; 412-521-1100). Dedicated in 2013, the memorial is an evocative maze with glass cinderblock “walls” made with six million soda tabs that together form a Star of David. The brainchild of a history teacher who asked students to bring in the tabs to help them grasp the enormity of six million lost lives, the collection took nearly five years to amass.
Next, head up to Squirrel Hill’s bustling center around the intersection of Forbes and Murray Avenues. Just west of Murray Avenue is the JCC. On a peak of the building sits another well-known Pittsburgh clock, this one marking time with Hebrew letters.
Step inside for a visit to the American Jewish Museum. In addition to changing exhibits and occasional interactive programs, the museum has several permanent displays too poignant to miss. “The Journey of Jakob’s Torah” features a Torah scroll rescued from a German synagogue on Kristallnacht and a map tracing its journey to Shanghai, San Francisco and New York, before reaching its final destination.
Jonas Salk likely had the biggest impact on society, but he is just one of numerous well-known Jews with a Pittsburgh connection. Hank Greenberg—the Hebrew Hammer and the first Jewish superstar in American team sports—played for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Noted Jewish artists and musicians affiliated with Pittsburgh include painter Philip Pearlstein, who studied at Carnegie Mellon with Andy Warhol, and onetime Pittsburgh Symphony conductors William Steinberg, Andre Previn and Lorin Maazel.
Sophie Masloff had the dual distinction of being the first Jew and the first woman to serve as mayor. The daughter of Romanian immigrants, Masloff was 70 when she took office in 1988. She died in 2014 at the age of 96.
Gene Kelly, although not Jewish, was so involved with the city’s Jewish community that he’s the subject of an exhibit at the Rauh archives. At the urging of a member of Squirrel Hill’s Beth Shalom synagogue, Kelly taught dancing classes in the shul’s basement throughout much of the 1930s.
Books about and by Jewish Pittsburghers include Steel City Jews and Jewish Pittsburgh (Arcadia) by Barbara S. Burstin and Pittsburgh: A New Portrait (University of Pittsburgh Press) by Franklin K. Toker. (Burstin runs the website Pittsburgh Jewish History as well.)
Michael Chabon, a Jewish Pulitzer Prize-winning author, wrote two novels that take place in Pittsburgh: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (Harper Perennial), begun during his undergraduate studies at Pitt, and Wonder Boys: A Novel (Random House), later made into a movie.
Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kaufmann and America’s Most Extraordinary House (Knopf), also by Toker, tells the story of the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. Commissioned by Edgar J. Kaufmann, the aptly named home—literally built over a waterfall—is about 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Designed in 1935 as a mountain retreat for the Kaufmanns in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, Fallingwater (1491 Mill Run Road; 724-329-8501) blends the outdoors and indoors—a classic Wright design at its most daring. In addition to touring the home with its original furnishings and artwork, visitors can go outside and stroll through the grounds.
Squirrel Hill has no hotels, but visitors can stay at the Inn on Negley in Shadyside (412-661-0631), not far from Rodef Shalom or Squirrel Hill. For those who prefer Downtown, the Omni William Penn Hotel is an excellent choice (412-281-7100).
Squirrel Hill has kosher eateries all within a few blocks. Murray Avenue Kosher (1916 Murray Avenue; 412-421-1015) sells groceries and takeout. Grilliance (2118 Murray Avenue; 412-421-2620) offers Chinese dishes as well as burgers and other American food. Milky Way Dairy (412-421-3121), a casual kosher vegetarian restaurant, is next-door at 2120 Murray Avenue.
Museum enthusiasts can visit the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, encompassing the Museum of Art and Museum of Natural History, both in Oakland; the Carnegie Science Center; and the Andy Warhol Museum, both on the North Side.
Come to Pittsburgh to delve into its rich Jewish history, but don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy its eclectic architecture and culture and explore its natural world.