In Their Own Words: The History of Homestead’s Jewish Community

The highlight of the sixteen boxes of records preserved from the Homestead Hebrew Congregation is the various speeches from 1901-1944.  They record the early history of Homestead’s Jewish community, its synagogue, and the other Jewish groups in town.  Numerous individuals — our ancestors — are mentioned in conjunction with the contributions they made.  Taken together these speeches are the best source we have for the synagogue’s history, especially in the early years. 1

Most of all, at each point in time they capture the perspective of the community on its past and future.  Even from the very beginning you get the sense that they believed they were building for posterity.  The more I read these speeches, the more I feel sure that they expected their descendants to come along and re-read their words to learn from them.  Why else would they have preserved these speeches in duplicate and sometimes triplicate?  They thought they would be remembered as the creators of something that took root and thrived.  Yes, they did “[plant] the seed of Abraham in New Soil” 2, but the soil they chose, the once-booming steel mill town of Homestead, was quickly depleted for Jews and non-Jews alike.  It “came up in a night and perished in a night.” 3

All of the speeches are worth reading.  They aren’t particularly long, for one thing, and most are in English. (The Yiddish ones are still with the translator.)  Most come from the archived synagogue records, but a few come from (or are duplicated in) local Homestead newspapers.  Most are written by I. Grossman, the shul’s (self-proclaimed) historian.  Due to the nature of the occasions on which they were given, they’re all spaced about a decade apart.  I’ll take you through them in reverse chronological order:

  1. Because its history is the most detail of all of them, the first speech to read is the last one, given on March 19, 1944 at the synagogue’s Fiftieth Anniversary banquet.  (This link and the others below will open in a new window so you won’t lose your place here.)  It begins by connecting the original immigrants who founded Homestead’s community to the first Jewish immigrant, Abraham, and runs through the major events of the community’s early years (late 1880s-1914).  Fifteen individuals are singled out for their for their contributions (1902-1943). The speech concludes with a sad acknowledgement of the war currently raging in Europe.  “It is not likely that the world of tomorrow can be any better than the people who inhabit it,” Grossman writes, which I find especially poignant to read today as the world seems to be backsliding.
  2. A very similar speech is the one given ten years prior at the synagogue’s Fortieth Anniversary banquet on January 28, 1934.  Also written by Grossman (but delivered by his son), he once again begins by invoking Biblical history, this time to connect the community to all the patriarchs.  “Our ancestors are the ones who started this organization,” he explains, “and we only trying to follow in the path they have trodden.”  The history that follows is quite similar to the 50th anniversary speech, but fewer people are acknowledged — not only because there is a decade less of history to cover, but also because everywhere that Bernhardt Hepps, my great-grandfather, was mentioned in the 50th anniversary speech, he is omitted here!  4  I find this public airing of grievances — editing out one of the community’s most long-serving leaders, whose omission many present would have realized — fairly ironic considering how Grossman concludes his speech:

May the members of this Congregation learn from the past the knowledge that only one word אחדות ‘Unity’ can build up, sustain and make a successful Congregation. The word ‘Unity’ must always be in front of our eyes. The religious and humane purposes of the Congregation must be devotedly, and with a strong will, in ‘Unity’, promulgated and propagated

Why was Bernhardt edited out?  As you’ll see in #3 below, Grossman was not a fan of his.  But also, at the very same time this banquet took place, a major financial scandal was unfolding at the synagogue, and one of Bernhardt’s sons, then secretary, was the one everyone pointed the finger at.  Though Bernhardt had nothing to do with the scandal (and in fact, even after his son was impeached in April, he was elected the synagogue’s next treasurer), perhaps there was a general anti-Hepps sentiment in the air broader than Grossman’s personal antipathy?

  1. Since we’re on the subject of the relationship between Bernhardt and Grossman, I’m going to skip back two decades to the speech Grossman made at the dedication of the second synagogue on September 6, 1914.  It is a very different kind of speech from all the others.  Most of it recounts an episode from a Victor Hugo novel in which a man who seems like a savior is executed for dereliction of duty.  It appears that the point of this long story is to criticize Bernhardt publicly for being an “autocratic ruler” who “steam-[rolled]” over other people’s suggestions i his role as chairman of the building committee!  I was flabbergasted when I read this; what could he have been thinking to have insulted one of the chief participants in the celebration in front of hundreds of people — not only Homestead’s entire Jewish community, but also many of the Jewish leaders from Pittsburgh and non-Jewish leaders of Homestead?!  Perhaps Mr. Unity should have taken his own advice.  (The Homestead newspaper had the good sense to edit out this nastiness when it reprinted his speech a couple days later on its front page.)
  2. The speech I skipped over was for the Thirtieth Anniversary on May 4, 1924, the third of three anniversary banquets.  This speeh is quite unlike the other two.  As always, Grossman read the synagogue’s history, but he just read word-for-word the same exact speech he made at the cornerstone-laying eleven years prior (#6 below), probably the previous time he was called upon to give the synagogue’s history at a public celebration.  A more interesting feature of this banquet was the quatrains that children of the congregation read to the seven surviving charter members before presenting them with loving cups.  Each poked a bit of fun at its subject.  “Just like Moses our great teacher / A lot of talking is his feature,” begins one.  Bernhardt’s compares him to Bismark in his prime!

One mystery about this ceremony is the subject of a scrap of paper written in someone else’s handwriting, which is pasted between the pages of the poems.  This person is the “one person [who] should be selected among the charter members of this Cong. who has worked the hardest to provide a suitable house of worship, and build up the Cong to the plane on which it now stands.”  But the paper ends with ellipses, never saying who this person is.  On the one hand, in that nasty speech (#3 above) it’s Joseph Lasdusky, the president of the congregation both times the synagogue was built, whom Grossman praises using similar language.  On the other hand, the child assigned to read this speech is the same child assigned to read Bernhardt’s quatrain.

  1. Continuing backwards, now we arrive properly at the speeches for the 9/6/1914 synagogue dedication I mentioned earlier.  We have Grossman’s history-free nasty speech, and from the newspaper we have a summary of Bernhardt’s remarks and a speech from master of ceremonies Bernard Glück.  He touches upon themes common to Grossman’s early speeches, which makes me think the grateful, almost religious patriotism he expresses was generally felt.

We came here from all four corners of the globe speaking various languages and having different customs. We have united here, living together as one large family, in peace and harmony, and have organized this congregated named Rodef Sholom, meaning Seeking Peace…

This Synagogue is our Common Home. It will fasten closer the bonds between ourselves and this glorious land of our choice. We are proud of being American citizens and of calling this land of the stars and stripes our home. The state of Pennsylvania is our Palestine and the city of Homestead is our Jerusalem.

  1.  A year prior to that, on 9/28/1913 the cornerstone for this synagogue was laid.  Grossman’s speech at this time covers the history only since the dedication of the first synagogue in 1902, alluding to a separate history already read which covered the 1893-1902 period. 5 He speaks at a fairly high level compared to his other histories, mentioning the other major Jewish organizations founded in Homestead that augmented the congregation’s work.  It was reprinted in its entirety in Homestead’s newspaper.

Since I first read it four years ago, I particularly admired the eloquence of this speech.  If I had written this blog post at that time, I would have quoted a couple of its sections for how they captured the mindset of the community.  But unfortunately, I discovered that most of it is plagiarized!  It was lifted from a published speech given by the national leader of B’nai Brith, whose Homestead chapter was the leading Jewish social organization in the town at that time.  Would other members have recognized the words?  Would they have cared?  I suspect the repurposed sentiments are still accurate for Homestead, though this discovery makes me retract the close-readings I would have shared with you about particular turns of phrase, like how “each group sought to dominate the others, controversies arose, and at times destruction was threatened” might allude to the real story behind a short-lived, breakaway congregation.

  1. Eleven years prior was when the first synagogue was dedicated on 3/31/1902.  This time President Joseph Lasdusky gave the synagogue’s history, summarizing the early years of 1893-1902.

Previous to 1894 when we organized, all the Israelites of this town were isolated from one another. They had no social companionship and no organization, but were strangers in a strange land. They had the desire but not the power to rise socially. They were estranged among themselves, but not with their God.

As with the second synagogue dedication, this one was well-attended by leaders and laymen from the Jewish and non-Jewish communities.  My favorite section of all of the speeches is the following:

We have also adopted this as our motto: “How Good and pleasant it is when brothers congregate with Unity of thought and unity of action for the promotion of Good.” How well we lived under this banner since our organization we can safely leave to the decision of the good citizens of our town, and we feel that we can say with pride that their verdict must be such as would make any presiding officer proud of his members. We have proof tonight of the respect and esteem in which the Hebrews of Homestead [are] held by our Gentile friends and neighbors, for looking about us we see the most prominent citizens of our town honoring us with their presence at our table, willing to break bread with us and thereby showing that we have their well wishes while we celebrate the dedication of our new synagogue.

These words tug at my heart.  Many of these immigrants even at this early date had respected businesses, but they were still Jews in a town that was struggling to deal with the diversity of people the steel mill attracted.  “Honoring us with their presence,”  “willing to break bread with us”: having non-Jewish leaders, even the mayor, celebrating the community’s establishment must have been something for which these recent immigrants were genuinely grateful. Heartbreakingly grateful, I’d say: this synagogue would be burned in an arson nine years later, and the community would be accused of destroying it for the insurance money.

As we are seeing in our own time, the position of the Jewish community may rise and fall throughout history, but for us there is no “end of history” where old hatreds are truly eradicated.  I wonder if they saw their position in Homestead and in America as secure or insecure.  And do we?  How will history regard their optimistic patriotism?  And ours?  6

  1. Finally, we’re at the beginning, the very first English speech that survives, I. Grossman’s first public speech on behalf of the synagogue at its 8/18/1901 cornerstone-laying.  Oh, how I wish it were better!  I have tried to follow his trains of thought, but they never quite get to the station.  I believe this speech was translated from one I found in Yiddish, so I’m hoping in the original his ideas come across more clearly.   All that survives in English is the introduction, so while there are no historical facts to glean here, the sentiments give a sense of the community’s gratitude and piety on this, the first public celebration they’d have.

 With us Jewish people it usually happens, [we] came from foreign lands in poverty and misery, naked and barefooted, and in many cases [we] are driven out by tyrannical rulers from [our] old homes, and [we] finally arrive in this land of the free, and with the help of God [we] have prospered…through [our] industry and usefulness…

My friends with help of God this house will be a house of study, a house of meditation, a House of God for the Homesteadd Jewish community, a house of worship wherein nothing but prayers and the words of the Torah are to be heard. A House whose foundation stands on truth and every stone is hallowed with the words, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the lord is one.”

***

I have had a sort of love-hate relationship with I. Grossman while doing this research.  On the one hand, I sure wish history had been written by someone with a more favorable opinion of my great-grandfather!  On the other, as a fellow, self-proclaimed “designated community historian,” I am essentially picking up where he left off.  I have to respect his diligence in recording the major events in the congregation’s history and making sure each public milestone included an acknowledgement of how the past made the present celebration possible.  We might disagree about Bernhardt, but clearly we share the same perspective about the value of knowing one’s history.  From his 1901 speech I’ve selected the epigraph of this website; they express my own motivation to publicly reassemble the community’s history for all of us to partake in:

Let us perform our duty, and review our past, write a History about the origin of our Congregation, and may this serve us and future generations.

***

Summary of original sources

Most of the speeches appear in the records at least twice.  Some appear three times.  My transcriptions (linked above) took all versions into account.

Date Occasion / description Archive locations Newspaper locations
8/8/1901 First cornerstone-laying (preface to history)
  • Box 4, folder 3
  • Two copies in Yiddish (box 4, folder 1, pp. 126-132 and folder 4, pp. 58-66)?
  • One paragraph quoted in 40th anniversary speech

3/31/1902 Dedication of first synagogue (given by Lasdusky)

  • The News-Messenger, 3/31/1902
  • The Homestead Press, March 31, 1902
9/28/1913 Cornerstone laying for second synagogue (plagiarized)
  • Box 4, folder 2, pp. 76-83
  • Box 3, folder 9, pp. 137-141, 40, 53-54
  • The Daily Messenger, 9/29/1913
9/6/1914 Dedication of second synagogue (nasty speech)
  • Box 4, folder 1, pp. 152-4
  • Box 4, folder 2, pp. 85-88
  • The Daily Messenger, 9/8/1914 (includes speech by Glück and summary of Bernhardt’s)
5/4/1924 30th anniversary introduction to history and poems (includes 9/28/1913 history verbatim)
  • Box 4, folder 4, pp. 89-91
  • Box 3, folder 9, pp. 118-9

1/28/1934 40th anniversary
  • Two copies in Box 4, folder 3 (one typed, one handwritten)
  • Box 4, folder 2, pp. 92-8

3/19/1944 50th anniversary
  • Box 4, folder 3
  • Box 4, folder 2, pp. 114-126

I’ve also compiled a complete listing of the Hebrew citations in these speeches.


  1. A close second is the local press, both Pittsburgh’s Jewish paper and Homestead’s general paper, which took a surprising interest in the community’s affairs.  

  2. 50th anniversary speech from 1944  

  3. Job 4:10, quoted in the 1901 cornerstone-laying; Wikipedia has a quick history of Homsestead’s boom and bust  

  4. It is for that reason, I believe, that one of the drafts of the Fiftieth Anniversary speech has every mention of Bernhardt underlined!  

  5. I have high hopes this speech is one of those I found only in Yiddish.  

  6. Sorry to be a downer, but I can’t help but think of the Jews of Central Europe who were so proud to have fought for their countries in the first World War.  

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