When the Quaker William Penn received the colonial charted for the area from Charles II in 1680 he incorporated a guarantee of religious freedom. Accordingly, many varied sects settled in Pennsylvania, including Jews. Among the early settlers were Joseph *Simon and Levy Andrew Levy.
After the Revolutionary War, the prosperous Philadelphia merchant David *Franks sent agents, among them Michael Gratz, with pack trains to Pittsburgh so often that their route was labeled Frankstown road. They and several other Jews bought plots of land, apparently for speculation, and the map indicates a cluster of lots to the east marked ‘Jewstown,” with another area near Sewickley marked “Gratztown.” Most of the Jews, like other traders, came and went as itinerant peddlers, but a few remained, striking roots. The first known permanent resident of Pittsburgh to have Jewish Ancestry was Samuel Pettigrew, son of Judith *Hart, who settled in the town in 1814 and later served as mayor.
On the whole, however, economic difficulties caused by the diversion of river traffic by the Erie Canal kept Jewish immigration down. It was not until 1842 that Jews first met in a minyan for worship in a home near the Point. There is a dearth of records of this period, most having been destroyed in the great fire that swept the wooden town in 1845. In that year the Beth Almon Society was formed; land for a cemetery on Troy Hill was bought in 1846. With the building of the railroad in 1849, Jewish settlement began to increase. In 1852 there were 30 Jewish families in Pittsburgh, and six years later the number doubled. By 1854 a group meeting in a room over Vigilant Fire Department organized itself as Rodef Shalom, and in 1861 a building was dedicated on Hancock Street (later Eighth Street) where a Mr. Armhold served as reader, mohel, and shohet. German was the language of sermons and records, but the congregants showed willingness to modify practice regarding covered heads and mixed seating [male & female together], among others. This caused dissension, and a new group was created in 1864 calling itself Etz Hayim, more conservative in practice. In 1861 Rodef Shalom brought a young English Jew, Josiah Cohen, to head its religious school, and preach in English. He later became a distinguished judge.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Pittsburgh grew in importance and population. From a handful, the number of Jews in 1864 became 750, nearly all of German origin. Ten of these men were in uniform. Women served on the Sanitary Commission, forerunner of the Red Cross. The United Hebrew Relief Society assisted returning soldiers and their families. Expanding heavy industry that was to make Pittsburgh the “Workshop of the World” drew great streams of immigration from Europe. The population had outgrown the triangle, and pushed upward with stores on Fifth Avenue and small red-brick houses on adjacent streets on the “Hill.” Some moved across the river to the town of Allegheny. More affluent Jews followed them there. By 1877 there were 2,000 Jews in Pittsburgh, many of them recent immigrants from Lithuania, sharing in the ferment of the industrial growth of the city and its environs. Many peddlers moved out to the surrounding towns, but all returned to the city for the Sabbath and holidays and for kosher food.
in 1885 a national group of leading Reform rabbis led by Rabbi Isaac
Mayer *Wise met in Pittsburgh and articulated a series of points that were
to be known as the *Pittsburgh Platform.
East European Immigration
The Russian pogroms of 1881 [set off after the assassination of the Czar of Russia] set in motion the mass exodus which brought Russian Jews to America. Many thousands came to Pittsburgh, raising its Jewish population to 15,000 by 1905. The earlier residents received the penniless immigrants as their own despite barriers of language and provincial manners. They doled out silver dollars for Sabbath meals, and helped to find lodgings and jobs. The Council of Jewish Women provided English teachers, gave guidance to homeless girls. and conducted classes in religion for children. The Gusky Orphanage was established, and various family and health services were founded. The Hebrew Free Loan Association assisted the newcomers with small sums to start them in business.
The rush of immigration brought an influx of well-educated Hebraic scholars from the yeshivot of Lithuania and Poland. In 1877 Rabbi Markowitz led the first of many Orthodox congregations. Rabbi Simon Sivitz founded the Shaare Torah Congregation and Talmud torah in 1888. In 1901 Rabbi Aaron *Ashinsky led Beth Jacob and Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, and was a driving force in creating new agencies conducted in the Orthodox tradition, including the House of Shelter, Home for the Aged, and Hebrew Institute. A variety of synagogues served Russian, Polish, Galician, and Hungarian groups. The demand for kasher food in a hospital and the need for professional openings for Jewish doctors inspired a group of women led by Mrs. Barnett David to inaugurate fund raising that led to the creation of Montifiore Hospital. The Irene Kaufmann Settlement was the recreation center for a large number of immigrants. By 1912 a full complement of social agencies united in the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies with headquarters on Fernando street, easily accessible to the Yiddish-speaking community from the Hill. In that year there were 35,000 Jews in Pittsburgh. By the close of the free immigration in 1925, there were 60,000 Jews in the area, many of whom had begun spilling over the margins of the Hill to Oakland, East End, and Squirrel Hill.
A complex community was growing. The Workmen’s Circle fostered
socialist ideas in an agnostic framework. Largely inspired by Rabbi
Ashinsky, a vibrant Zionist movement flourished. A branch of the
American Jewish Committee came in to being: The B’nai B’rith lodges
multiplied, and the American Jewish Congress added a note of militancy.
Jewish War Veterans organized a Post.
Post-Word War I
A new generation of young people, native American Jews, moved with enthusiasm and talent throughout the public schools, heading on to colleges and eastern universities. English was spoken everywhere, and prevailing American social amenities were the norm. Attendance at worship services dropped off and religious education reached a low ebb. But the Jews were playing an appreciable role in the growth of Pittsburgh. Parallel with the vast development of the steel industry, Jewish store-keeping had blossomed in to great department stores – Kaufmann’s, Kaufmann and Baer’s, Rosenbaum’s, Frank and Seder’s. These and other Jewish names appeared among those who sponsored symphony concerts, art exhibitions, and other cultural events. Although the leading social clubs still practiced exclusion, Jews had created pleasant facilities for themselves and began to emerge on the political and social scene, a number serving with distinction in the judiciary, city council, board of education, and state legislature.
With the depression of the 1930’s, the Jews were able to “take care of their own” through the numerous agencies which were united in the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies/ As the decade advanced and the urgency to provide help for German Jewery became evident, new service and fund-raising agencies were called into being. In 1936 the United Jewish Fund was established. Reacting to the Nazi tragedy, Pittsburgh received it share of refugees from Germany, responded with fervor to the effort to create a Jewish homeland, and raised unprecedented sums for overseas relief.
A total transfer of Jewish population had taken place from the Hill to Squirrel Hill and the suburbs. New structures housed the synagogues, old and new. Awakened by the Holocaust, a renewed zeal for Jewish education resulted in highly developed programs of the Hebrew Institute, Hillel, and the Advanced Jewish Study Program of the United Jewish Federation. Synagogues responded with emphasis on the education and youth, as well as keen interest in the State of Israel.
In 1970 Pittsburgh Jewery numbered 45,000 a decrease attributable to
a growing tendency to relocate in the suburbs. Leadership passed
into the hands of a new generation, largely of East European origin.
Rodef shalom remained the largest and most prestigious congregation, although
no longer dominated solely by the “German: families. Montifiore Hospital,
with 500 bed, was a teaching arm of the University of Pittsburgh.
The Symphony Orchestra included many Jews, players as well as the conductor,
and many generous patrons. There were several hundred Jewish teachers
and principals in the public schools, and many distinguished members of
the university faculties. Jewish names were outstanding in the city’s
history – Otto *Stern, Nobel prizewinner; Alexander Silverman, glass chemist;
Joseph Slepian, electrical engineer; George S. Kaufman, dramatist;
Jonas *Salk, discoverer of the polio vaccine; Solomon B. *Freehof,
rabbi; Samuel Rosenberg, artist; William Steinberg, conductor;
and Immanuel Estermann, physicist.
Bibliography: M. Taylor, Jewish Community of Pittsburgh, December, 1938 (1941); A. J. Karp (ed.) Jewish Experience in America, 1 and 4 (1968), indexes.