These groups form the second round of organized Jewish life in the Homestead, the first being the Y.M.H.A. and Y.W.H.A. groups that started in the teens and faded in the 30s. One of the remarkable aspects of these groups, which the highly-local documentation I’ve found doesn’t quite touch upon, is how they brought small-town Jewish kids into contact with a much larger Jewish community than they had at home. For a beautiful reflection on how this worked, read these remarks by Marshall Gordon, a former Homestead AZA member who went on to become a BBYO director.
The first AZA chapter was chartered in 1924. Its name, Aleph Zadik Aleph, was intentionally in response to the Greek fraternities that were then refusing membership to Jews. The organization was adopted by B’nai B’rith the following year. In 1933, the year Homestead’s chapter was organized, there were 100 chapters nationwide.
“This is to announce the first summer frolic of the newly organized Homestead Aleph Club, a prospective A.Z.A. chapter,” wrote The Jewish Criterion on 6/2/1933. While this was also the last time in the decade they advertised themselves in the local Jewish paper, they next show up in the synagogue meeting minutes in November 1939 when the board approved “the offer by the Homestead AZA to pay the sum of $25 as rental in the use of the basement of the Synagogue on New Years Eve for a dance and social.” 1 While this dance might not seem interesting, it is the earliest documented dance (gasp!) in the shul, a major shift from the decades-long policy of not permitting the basement to be used for such levity. Fortunately for future party-goers, the minutes go on to relate, “The A.Z.A.’s had a dance New Years Eve in the Vestry Room of the Synagogue and it was conducted in a very orderly manner. Check for Twenty-five ($25.00) Dollars was tendered in payment” 2
It’s possible the group lapsed after that, because they disappear from the minutes for the rest of 1940. But on January 17, 1941, The Jewish Criterion reported, “The newly organized H. S. Schwartz Aleph Club of Homestead, Pa., has set February 7 at 8 p. m., at the Rodef Sholem Synagogue, Homestead as the date and place for the installation of their newly organized chapter and officers of the ensuing year.” Newly organized? Or newly re-organized? 3 Not all the kinds had been worked out with their new-fangled shul dances — in the February 1941 board meeting, Harry Jacobson resigned from the shul, because, it came out two meetings later, he was upset “that the young group of Jewish boys and girls were required to pay the sum of Ten ($10.00) Dollars for the use of the Vestry room for a dance held recently. Receipts were insufficient to cover the expense and Harry Jacobson paid it himself. H. Exler adds that they were required to pay the sum of $2.50 additional for permission to play the recordings and that they were not granted permission to do so until the $2.50 had been paid.” 4 The matter was tabled at that time and never taken up again, but it seems like Harry Jacobson remained a member.
Synagogue and newspaper mentions attest to the high level of group activity during the 40s. They continued to throw many dances in the shul‘s basement, with no further (documented) incidents. Starting in 1945 they had a minyan ever Sunday morning at 1945, and with the girls’ group sponsored late Friday evening services followed by an oneg. They participated in the High Holiday choir in 1948 (and likely in other years as well). And in April 1949, in response to an “urgent request” from the Israeli Army “asking for any type of books Hebrew, Jewish, English, not necessarily on Jewish subjects,” the Homestead AZA collected books! Mi k’amcha Yisrael! In the May 1949 board meeting, the shul reported that the AZA now had a paper and the congregation should contribute to it! 5
A number of AZA boys went off to fight in World War II. The March 11, 1945 shul board meeting minutes record a contribution of $20 for a name plate on the memorial tablet in memory of Wilbert Newman, a charter member of the Homestead AZA. The July 1, 1945 meeting records another $20 contribution from Fred Kaminsky, the advisor of the AZA, for a name plate for Milton Jackson, also killed in action. (More about their service here.)
The group found much success on the basketball court. The joined the Pittsburgh JCC’s Junior Intramural league in 1945 and the Intermediate League in 1947… and they did quite well!
THE HOMESTEAD AZA BASKETBALL team won the trophy for being the outstanding team in the Irene Kaufmann Settlement’s BBYO Basketball league. The championship game was played with the Victory Chapter team. Allen Goppman, league supervisor, made the presentation.
— American Jewish Outlook, 4/9/1948
HOMESTEAD AZA won the IKS-AZA League Championships by ending up with an unbeaten record of seven wins and no losses. The team-members will be awarded by the league officials with individual AAU medals.
The Homestead AZA is also the Western Pa. and West Virginia Sectional AZA champs and will compete with four other teams for District No. 3 honors in Scranton on April 8, 9, and 10.
— American Jewish Outlook, 3/25/1949
I can’t find out how they did, though! However on November 22, the Melvin Frank Lodge sponsored a “gigantic Sports Night Program” with many local sports notables, including “President Art Rooney and members of the squad of the Pittsburgh Steelers!” “The Homestead AZA boys who are being honored that night are a group of youngsters who have played together for the past 6 years; they have compiled an outstanding sports record,” the article concluded. 6
In the Pittsburgh Jewish newspapers there are only sporadic newspaper mentions of the group in 1952 and 1956. (The shul records stop by 1951, and by the time they pick up in 1963, the youth group have faded too far.) The New Castle News on 2/8/1950 reported the Homestead AZA beat the Beaver Valley AZA. The Delaware County Times on 4/4/1955, reported the Chester AZA defeating the Homestead boys to win the District 3 crown. The Homestead players in that game: Miller, Coffee, Colker, Fisher, Kubitz, Geller, Rudney. So they stayed active longer than the record would suggest…
The first permanent chapter of the Junior Auxiliary of B’nai B’rith Women was organized in 1927 in response to the formation of the AZA. The structure was informal until 1944, when it officially took the name “B’nai B’rith Girls.” The 10th BBG chapter issued at that time was Homestead’s!
The history of Homestead’s BBG group precedes this 1944 milestone. On Sunday, January 21, 1940, “the Western Penna. Junior B’nai B’rith Council [held] their second open council meeting at which time the newly organized Homestead Junior group [was] formally invited and installed into the ranks of B’nai B’rith.” 7 Records are sparse for their first year — all I can find is a Chanukah event in December 1940 and a dance in January 1941. 8 In addition to keeping up a calendar of social events, they knitted for the Red Cross, created scrapbooks for soldiers’ hospitals, sold war bonds, and helped organize a blood drive. They served as ushers at the installation of the first officers of the H.S. Schwartz AZA in 1941 and in 1945 joined with them to sponsor Friday night services and onegs in the shul, as well as High Holiday services in 1941!
I can find much less about this group in the newspapers and meeting minutes. I would guess they faded in the late 40s, but who’s to say how these records reflect what was actually happening.
The B’nai B’rith Youth Organization was formed in 1944 at the same time as the BBG was formalized to serve as an umbrella group over both the AZA and BBG.
Joint activities between the AZA and BBG, as noted above, had happened regularly since the early 40s, but it wasn’t until later that the groups actually merged. In his oral history, Marshall Gordon recalled, “When I was BBYO director there [in McKeesport] in the late 60’s, there was a BBYO chapter in Homestead, co-ed. There weren‘t enough boys, and not enough girls for separate groups, so there was a co-ed chapter.” Ruth Stein recalled the same in her oral history — she was a member during her high school years (1954-1958).
I find myself attempting to bend the sparse historical record to their recollections. In Homestead the first mention of a BBYO was in 1952. All the early mentions name women, concurrently with the AZA maintaining its name, which makes me wonder if the BBG transitioned into the BBYO first? The latest BBYO mention I can find is from a 1957 newspaper article, but I think this is deceptive given the oral history recollections. Here are some recollections from one member (b. 1940):
AP: Was there a BBG chapter in Homestead or Munhall, in that area?
RH: Not, there weren’t enough girls for a BBG chapter and weren’t enough guys for an AZA chapter, so they called it a BBYO.
AP: Oh, I see. Then you had a combined group… Did that feel, adequate to you?
RH: Yeah, it was. And then as we grew older we would go into Squirrel Hill for, for dances and other AZA and BBG Conventions. Or whatever there was. I mean we were never deprived of going out of town, if there was something in, say, Beaver Falls or wherever, we were, we always went. Because that was your way of meeting new kids and, and keeping friendships with the old. Or going to McKeesport. And we always did.
AP: Now what about, did the Shul do anything for you?
RH: When they had, when the BBYO Convention was held in Homestead, they had it at the Shul, and I don’t remember really what all else, they had to have some athletic activity someplace, and I don’t remember where it was. Or bowling, probably within Homestead someplace. I just don’t, I just don’t remember.
AP: As for, for any social life, in terms of Jewish social life, it really had to be BBYO. There wasn’t anything that was happening in the, in the Synagogue per se.
RH: No, No. We brought it all together, whoever was president at the time, and vice-president. And, and we didn’t mind it at all. I mean, at least we had someplace to go to hang out. And communications with everybody else and friendships that we kept in touch with.
AP: Did you meet in the synagogue?
RH: Yeah, and sometimes we met at homes.
AP: Oh, I see, because it was, the group was small enough.
RH: Yeah, there weren’t that many. There weren’t that many.
AP: Were the kids in BBYO largely people who you already knew from the Synagogue?
BH: Yes. Yes, they belonged to the Synagogue, because Homestead was, it wasn’t that big of a Synagogue to begin with. And we just, everybody just knew everybody. And not that many new people were coming into the area whether it be Homestead, Munhall or Homestead Park. You knew who was there.
1940-1950 Meeting Minutes, p. 433 ↩
1940-1950 Meeting Minutes, p. 460ish (sorry) ↩
1940-1950 Meeting Minutes, pp. 56, 78 ↩
1940-1950 Meeting Minutes, p. 409 ↩
11/18/1949, The Jewish Criterion and American Jewish Outlook ↩
The Jewish Criterion, 1/19/1940 ↩
1940-1950 Meeting Minutes, pp. 35, 57 ↩