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Building An Archive In Real Time: How The History Center Is Recording Pittsburgh Jewish History

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
For 30 years, the Heinz History Center has been collecting artifacts from around western Pennsylvania that represent the Jewish community's long legacy in the region.

Genealogies, time cards, and newspaper clippings are among the hundreds of artifacts in the Heinz History Center’s Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives

In response to last week’s deadly attack on a Squirrel Hill synagogue, the collection’s curators organized the Caring for the Community tour through the archives.

In the lobby of the History Center near a black wall, a message is written: “Be Strong, Be Strong, And May We Be Strengthened” which was posted in the aftermath of the Tree of Life shooting. A few dozen visitors have gathered in the lobby around the collections director Eric Lidji, who explains the origins of the Rauh Archives.

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In the lobby of the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh's Strip District, visitors post messages addressed to the city's Jewish community.

“We were started through a very unique arrangement that not a lot of other Jewish archives around the country have,” Lidji said. The collection began in 1987, and archivists traveled around western Pennsylvania gathering records and artifacts that are displayed throughout exhibits at the History Center and digitally recorded online.


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Glass artifacts as part of the History Center's Steamship Arabia exhibit. Some of Pittsburgh's earliest families were in the glass business, including the Frank family, whose legacy was later remembered in the naming of Frankstown Road.

Lidji starts the tour at the Steamship Arabia exhibit, next to shelves of hand-blown glassware. This kind of work, he said, are an example of the Jewish community’s decades-long relationship with the Pittsburgh region before families started settling here. In the 1830s, the Frank family — locals might recognize the moniker from “Frankstown Road” in the city’s Homewood neighborhood — owned a large glass company, and are considered the first Jews to make their home in Pittsburgh.

In the 1840s, Jewish immigrants started a community cemetery near present-day Troy Hill called Bes Almon Society, or, the House of Forever. Lidji said the establishment of a cemetery is significant to Jews because it’s both practical and an indication of permanence.

“Their decision to build that cemetery was an announcement that they intended to live and remain here,” Lidji said.

Soon after, enough families arrived in Pittsburgh that the Jewish community built a synagogue. The congregation, Sha’ar Shemayim, or, Gates of Heaven, was chartered in 1856 in what’s now the Cultural District.

Moving further into the “Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation” exhibit, Lidji stops next to a framed advertisement for the Pittsburgh Sanitary Fair. These fundraisers were held during the Civil War to provide medical supplies and care to Union soldiers. After their success, Lidji said the organizers — most of whom were women, many of them Jewish — were energized to continue philanthropic work. Locally, a group of women created the Hebrew Ladies Aid Society.

"An all-purpose charity for addressing needs within the Jewish community,” said Lidji.

With the arrival of more Jewish immigrants from Europe came wide-ranging worship practices and customs. In 1863, the city’s second synagogue, Tree of Life, was established. While it has changed locations over the years, it's current location on Wilkins Avenue in Squirrel Hill is the one that was targeted by a gunman on Oct. 27.

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Eric Lidji, director of collections for the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives at the Heinz History Center, points to a replica of the Ferris Wheel, which was unveiled during the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.

Lidji moves on to artifacts from the 1893 World’s Fair or World’s Columbian Exposition. It was at this fair that a new movement among Jewish women was sparked called preventative philanthropy.

“You would figure out what the root causes [of distress] were,” Lidji said. “So if the problem was that people couldn’t get jobs because they couldn’t speak English, then you would create a class, a night class, where people could come after work and learn English.”

The movement was later known as the National Council of Jewish Women. Pittsburgh was one of the original four chapters and upheld its mission, Lidji said, by opening community centers for new immigrants. The commitment to uplifting the neediest in a community continues in Pittsburgh, as evidenced by the outpouring of support and solidarity after the deadly Squirrel Hill shooting, Lidji said.

From 1880 to 1920, the Jewish population of Pittsburgh grew from 2,000 to 55,000. The hub of life for these families was the Hill District where establishments like the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House open for the first time. Jewish Pittsburghers could visit the center and a handful of others like it for recreation, music classes and training.

But Lidji said unlike other immigrant populations to the city — which are often closely aligned with manufacturing and labor — Jews in Pittsburgh weren’t in the mills. In Europe, Jews were historically known for being merchants, the intermediaries between aristocracy and lower classes. This continued when they moved to Pittsburgh.

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On the fourth-floor special collections in the History Center, sacred Torah scrolls are displayed next to a cabinet and ark from a synagogue formerly in the Hill District.

“If you look at the small towns around Pittsburgh, you’ll find that many of their business districts had a lot of Jewish businesses in them,” Lidji said.

Mill work wasn’t conducive to Jewish laborers for religious reasons, too. Before the establishment of the weekend, a seven-day work week was the norm, making it impossible for Jews to take off the Sabbath. In the Hill District, Jews were bakers, tailors and stogie-rollers.

These stogie-rollers hold a unique place in American labor history. Lidji points to a newspaper article from 1913 that describes a workers’ strike in which one group of rollers reached settlements with sweatshop owners, but others hadn’t. So the community came together and created a communal strike fund to support the workers without labor terms. It worked, Lidji said, because the Jewish community was so close.

“This group of stogie-makers — who were not rich, did not have savings accounts — were able to keep this strike going on for four months,” Lidji said.

There are some famous Jews from Pittsburgh, including actor Jeff Goldblum, writer Michael Chabon and polio vaccine inventor Jonas Salk. But former Pittsburgh Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss is less well known. He’s responsible for organizing the first World Series against Boston in 1903.

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The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform modernized many Jewish practices.

“And unfortunately we have the distinction of losing the first World Series,” Lidji said laughing, nodding to a poster for the game.

In the pantheon of American Jewish history, Lidji said Pittsburgh was the site of a reform movement within the religion. Called the Pittsburgh Platform, the 1885 meeting between leaders in Cincinnati and New York established a set of principles to guide congregants into the next century.

“The basic statement of the Pittsburgh Platform is that Judaism would be a religion and not an ethnicity or a people,” Lidji said.

Constance Mayer, who was on the tour, was surpised by Jewish Pittsburghers' 200-year legacy. She’s Jewish and belongs to Temple Ohav Shalom in the North Hills. She said she’s glad the History Center offered the archival walk-through because it’s helped her cope with the shooting in Squirrel Hill.

“This has been a very difficult time for us and I felt like we need to know our history in order to move forward,” Mayer said.

Tour attendee Joy Gero said the newspaper advertisements, artifacts, and historic images of the Hill District and other neighborhoods gave her a better sense of the Jewish community’s legacy.

“There was something really very lovely and moving to think about how Jewish folks have crafted community here in Pittsburgh for so much longer than this moment of sadness and tragedy in Jewish history,” Gero said.

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A sign from Tree of Life-S'fard of White Oak for Bingo games. The sign was made in the shape of an arrow to direct people to the synagogue. The congregation represents a merger of two congregations founded in the 19th century by Jewish immigrants in McKeesport. S'fard Anshe Galizia was founded by Jews from the part of Poland known as Galizia; Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) by Jews from Russia. The two congregations eventually merged and then moved to White Oak.

At the end of the tour near a tall wooden altar, Lidji’s tone grew somber, as he described how his interaction with the Jewish archive changed last week. Normally, the process of building and curating the archive is quiet, slow and methodical.

“But this week, we got a historical moment dropped onto us,” Lidji said. “And we’re frantically trying to collect everything we can about it.”

So far, they’ve gathered physical items like programs from funerals and memorial signs, as well as digital content like sounds from vigils and social media links. Lidji is also trying to collect every sermon delivered at a Shabbat in the region from the last week. It’s unusual to collect materials like this, Lidji said, because he’s used to documenting history years removed from it. Now, he’s building an archive in real time.

“[We don’t want] future generation to forget what happened here this week,” Lidji said. “Both the bad and then the incredible good afterward.”

The collection will accept any physical or digital items relating to the events at Tree of Life. Comments are also welcome.