“A person does not learn except from a place (makom) that his heart desires.”
“We won’t be wiped off the map.”
Welcome to HomesteadHebrews.com, a project to reconstruct the history of this once-thriving community. Here you’ll find records, photographs, stories, and memories collected from archives, libraries, and individuals to document who was in this community and how they contributed to the life of this historically important place. The goal of this website is to share the overlooked, but resonant story of a proudly American community in a complicated melting-pot of a town.
Why this place?
Originally I had no interest in Homestead per se; the town was the incidental setting to the most inspiring chapter of my family history and no more. I began to study Homestead only to understand the meaning of what my ancestors did there. No matter which town had been their home, I would have studied it… but I was fortunate to discover belatedly that the town that had come to matter so much to me matters to American history, too.
Once Homestead was home to America’s greatest steel mill at a time when the American steel industry was the pride of the country. Homestead steel built the country’s civil infrastructure and defended its troops in war. Three decades after the steel mill closed, if the name “Homestead” still means anything to anyone, it’s not for this past glory, but for the deadly strike of 1892, in which the locked-out union men confronted the Pinkertons brought in to enable non-union workers to take their place. If you took U.S. history in high school, the Homestead strike was in your textbook – maybe just a sentence, but it was there. Since the strike historians have written at least 13 books and numerous articles just about Homestead, not to mention the countless studies of industry, labor, and immigration in which Homestead plays a significant role.
Why this project?
For all this examination and reexamination, you could read all these works and still never learn what I have known all my life: that Homestead once had a Jewish community. A sizable one. An active one. Starting in the 1880s the mill drew them in, like all of Homestead’s residents, but the Jewish arrivals, as peddlers and merchants, weren’t attracted by the jobs the mill offered, but by the growing population of immigrant steelworkers who became their customers. In the years that followed they established a synagogue, cemetery, Hebrew school, and numerous social and charitable organizations. After World War II, Homestead’s population went into decline, and the Jewish community started to move on, too, in search of places where it was not only easier to make a living, but also to be Jewish. Though it’s been twenty-two years since the synagogue closed, the last generation of the community, wherever they made be, still remembers their history with pride.
And in that they are alone.
In three ways a Jewish community like Homestead’s is overlooked:
—By American historians, who concentrate only on those Homesteaders associated with the industry for which the town is synonymous
The history of Homestead is inextricable from the history of the steel industry, and this story is largely not a Jewish one. But if it matters to study Homestead, as it has to more than a century of journalists and historians, then it is worthwhile to look at it from more than just the obvious angles to learn all the lessons the past has to teach.
For one, the technological revolution of the late 19th c. and resulting labor strife affected more than just the immediate participants: in the crucible of this industry town, immigrants from all over the world forged a new American identity predicated on hard work, personal sacrifice, and middle class aspirations. This project examines one more way that version of the American dream faded against the rise and fall of the steel industry.
The partial view into Homestead’s past shows itself even more keenly in the most troubling of all America’s stories: how we have fulfilled and failed our country’s ideals when it comes to our treatment of the poor and minorities. While the numerous published histories take great pains to highlight the contributions of all groups that found work in the mill, they rarely mention even the presence of the Jewish community, though their fate, like their neighbors’, was tied to the mill. This project seeks to demonstrate that in the spectrum of what it took for all Homestead’s communities to achieve economic stability and gain access to power, the unique experiences of the Jewish community provide bounding examples of the best and worst outcomes of being a minority in such a place.
—By Jewish historians, who neglect the role of small-town communities in the largely urban story of Jewish Americans
At the time Congress curtailed Jewish immigration in 1924, more than nine-tenths of America’s Jewish population lived in the oldest port cities along the eastern seaboard and the newer transportation hubs inland. The number of these urban Jewish communities, however, is far surpassed by the number of small-town Jewish communities located in the kinds of remote places that Americans collectively consider the heart of the nation even today. Nevertheless, the story of the American Jewish community is often considered a wholly urban one, and to the extent that small towns are acknowledged, their communities are mistaken as mere microcosms of urban Jewish life.
There is more to the Jewish American story than how immigrant Jews became Americans in places where they were surrounded by people like themselves and easy access to mainstream culture. In place of the standard tropes of the Jewish immigrant experience, small towns show Jewish immigrants exercising their greatest autonomy in not only moving there at all, but also overwhelmingly establishing their own businesses and communal institutions, both of which required their ongoing engagement to survive. Through the lens of Homestead’s Jewish community, this project focuses on this vastly different path to the middle class to reveal aspects less well understood, but equally essential, about the Jewish people, American identity, and assimilation.
—By Jews and non-Jews alike, whose awareness of defunct Jewish communities is focused on those extinguished by prejudice and violence
The majority of places that had Jewish communities at the beginning of the 20th century no longer did by the end. Those that have been studied in depth, both small and large, are primarily those whose end came through extermination in Europe and expulsion in the Middle East. But a way of Jewish life ended in America, too – peacefully and unnoticed.
Many older Jewish Americans grew up in towns and neighborhoods that are no longer home to Jewish life, and the present-day residents of these places often don’t recognize the change. (When I tell present-day Homesteaders there was once a thriving Jewish community in their town, most register surprise.) Within the Jewish community, there is rightly a race against time to document the destroyed communities of Europe and the Middle East, while there is almost no effort to document the faded communities of small-town America, where the clock is ticking, too. This project is one, small effort to add to the record of everything that was lost in the last century.
In focusing on an American town, I am not positing that the overall emphasis is in the wrong place, only that if studying those communities that ended by force teaches us something about our neighbors, then considering those that ended by choice, even reluctant choice, could reveal something about ourselves.
The work of historians isn’t wrong – it is merely incomplete – which is why this project exists: to augment our current understanding of American, Jewish, and Homestead history.
Homestead’s Jewish community is not unique in being overlooked in these ways. There are many such neglected chapters of history. This one I call my own, but all of us are the product of historical circumstances worthy of more attention than they’ve gotten – or are likely to get. There is just too much history and too few historians.
To that end, I mean for this website to do more than just assemble the surviving traces of my ancestral community into a usable history for myself and my fellow Homestead descendants. By detailing the kinds of records I am uncovering and the places I am finding them, as well as the people I am meeting and the stories and private memorabilia they are sharing, I hope you can see that most of the work I am doing is within anyone’s reach. I am an untrained amateur, after all! And whether or not you find the stories that are slowly resurfacing personally meaningful to you, the mere fact of their existence should provide some reassurance that the past is never as completely forgotten as it may seem. If you make your own attempt, you may not find answers to all your questions, but you can piece together something of value that illuminates how you see yourself and the world around you… and more importantly, preserves the chapter of history you call your own.
If the process of researching my own chapter has taught me anything about how history is made, it is that our framework for understanding the past emerges from all these small studies – the more, the better. And when we repeat the truism that “history is made by those who write it,” what we’re really saying is that history is made by those who point to a corner of the past and declare to the world: this matters!
We must do the work of remembering the things we want the world to remember. For our own sake, and for all our Homesteads.