Anyone who has spent any time going through the speeches on this site knows that there was once a quite a tradition of commemorating the synagogue’s major anniversaries by reading and reflecting on the synagogue’s history. I’m not suggesting I deserve to stand in the shoes of the founders who originally established these traditions, but as probably the only person who knew that this anniversary was approaching, I didn’t want the occasion to pass unnoticed, either. The following is a D’var Torah that Congregation Beth Shalom, the synagogue that absorbed the Homestead synagogue when it closed, generously permitted me to give earlier today, the 100th anniversary to the day of the dedication of the synagogue building of the Homestead Hebrew Congregation Rodef Shalom, which still stands in Homestead.
In this week’s parasha, Ki Teitzei, Moshe lays out the civil laws that would soon govern life in Israel. As a result, this parasha stands out for having the most mitzvot of all the parshiyot in the Torah. For us it stands out for another reason: though the Hebrew and secular calendars rarely align, it turns out that the occasion from 1914 we are commemorating today also fell in the week of parashat Ki Teitzei! 1 Moreover, the 1901 cornerstone-laying for the first synagogue building also coincided with this parasha. On that day Ignatz Grossman, the synagogue’s historian, began his speech with words from the most fitting mitzvah from this parasha, which starts–
כִּי תִבְנֶה בַּיִת חָדָשׁ
When you build a new house 2
Now, the remainder of this verse focuses on a particular concern about a new house, that you should erect a guard rail around the roof lest anyone fall off – and it’s true, I did discover that I lost a great-great-grandfather on the Lower East Side in this way – but following the synagogue historian’s lead, I want to focus on just the first half of the verse and particularly on the first word, ki. “When you build a new house.”
This mitzvah was delivered as B’nai Yisrael were on the verge of entering the Promised Land. After forty years of wandering, they would at last settle down. “When you build a new house,” the commandment says, because soon this task would be part of establishing their new lives, as remote as that would have seemed after a generation of tent-dwelling.
The early Jewish community of Homestead, immigrants all, also saw themselves as settling down after their wanderings. The earliest arrivals, who included my great-grandfather, came in the late 1880s primarily from Hungary and Lithuania, but the community really began to grow in the aftermath of the steel mill riots in 1892. Within the year there were twelve families, but as one original member would later relate, at that time “all the Israelites of this town were isolated from one another.” 3 That autumn things began to change when they held their first High Holiday services in the local firehouse, but it wasn’t until the following spring that they formally organized the community after Sam Markovitz had trouble finding a minyan to recite kaddish on his father’s yahrzeit. “It [is] a disgrace that a Jewish community the size of the one in Homestead should have no organized Congregation,” exclaimed Isidor S. Grossman, and thus he became temporary chairman of the new congregation. My great-grandfather was elected its first Vice President, Sam Markovitz its first treasurer, and fifteen other men joined as elected officers or members. They called their new congregation Rodef Shalom, which they translated as “Seeking Peace” at the end of their journeys from “all four corners of the globe.” 4
Ki tivneh bayit chadash, “when you build a new house” – that “when” is not an “if.” “When” expresses confidence. You will get there. You will build. But it might not have seemed so certain to the Jews of Homestead in those early years. The community shrank, they struggled for two years to afford land to bury their dead, and it wasn’t until 1901, when they crossed twenty members, that they finally felt financially able to build their bayit chadash. Its cornerstone was laid by my great-grandmother on the Sunday of parashat Ki Teitzei, as I mentioned earlier, and the synagogue was dedicated seven months later.
In focusing on these four words, I echo the synagogue’s historian, but you might not have noticed them during the leyning, because this verse stands alone between two of the strangest mitzvot in the Torah: shiluach ha’kan (sending away the mother bird) and kilayim (forbidden mixtures). In fact, the whole parasha jumps around in this way: its record-setting seventy-four mitzvot cover marriage and rape and building and war and inheritance and missing animals and capital offenses and farming and loans and slaves and vows and disputes and even Amalek. We touch upon major life and business events and also much minutiae. The verses immediately surrounding ki tivneh bayit chadash mirror how the monumental nature of this act, the building of a new house, sets it apart from our day-to-day deeds, but the overall construction of this parasha shows that this act is just one of many acts, significant and insignificant, that come together to give our lives meaning.
Unfortunately this first synagogue building did not endure – it was partially destroyed in an act of arson in 1911 – but the community carried on, purchasing a new plot of land, signing with a new contractor, laying a new cornerstone, and building a new house. A year later, a hundred years ago today, they dedicated it in an elaborate ceremony with the participation of prominent rabbis from Pittsburgh and the leading citizens of Homestead, even its mayor. The local paper reported:
Never in Homestead have been witnessed more interesting and impressive ceremonies than the dedication of the new synagogue of the congregation Rodef Shalom…The throng present filled the capacious auditorium and gallery of the handsome structure and among them were many gentiles who were deeply interested in the ceremony, some of whom had never before attended a religious service with heads unbared. 5
For us, the celebration would have felt familiar. When they opened the doors to the synagogue for the first time, they sang a verse from Hallel, Pitchu Li Shaarei Tsedek (“Upon unto me, gates of righteousness” 6 ), and just as we did earlier during the Torah service, L’cha Adonai Hag’dulah (“Thine, Lord, is the greatness”) when they circled with the Torahs, and Eitz Chayim Hi (“It is a tree of life”) when they put the Torahs in the new ark for the first time. There were more prayers, numerous speeches, and a banquet, where the master of ceremonies, Bernard Glueck, proclaimed,
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. 7
And he concluded by reciting the shechechiyanu.
These are the things that were said and done just across the river a hundred years ago today when the new synagogue was dedicated.
But for as much as building the synagogue was a seminal moment in the congregation’s history, the edifice was just one of many pieces that had to come together to enable the Homestead Jewish community to thrive. It’s the things we would never celebrate, but the archives detail, that made the community a community: they established a school and oversaw instruction, sold seats and collected dues and tuition, circumcised newborns and buried the dead, shechted chickens and supervised butchers, comforted mourners and distributed tsedakah (and matzot and etrogim), kept up with repairs and mortgage payments, and on top of all that ran a calendar full of social and religious events. Like the structure of the parasha, the fabric of their community, like any Jewish community, was formed as much by the smaller, daily tasks and observances as the big lifecycle and communal events.
In the end it wasn’t the physical edifice that mattered, but the actions of the people who built and inhabited it. As I continue to make my way through the archival records of the unending work performed by a succession of people who came forward in each generation, I’m reminded that while the Prayer for the Community, which some communities read at the end of the Torah reading, starts by blessing those who establish synagogues, it goes on to bless those who do tasks as seemingly mundane as paying for the heat, and concludes with blessings for כָל מִי שֶׁעוסְקִים בְּצָרְכֵי צִבּוּר בֶּאֱמוּנָה, anybody who involves themselves faithfully with the needs of the community. 8 What I find most inspiring about my ancestral community in Homestead is that so many individual men and women looked at what had to be done and found a way to help, creating something out of nothing and sustaining it. Homestead was never an easy place to be Jewish. Even in the best years, they worked hard to keep the school filled and the budget balanced. They saw that if they didn’t do the work, it wouldn’t happen. So, time and again, so many of them stepped up. We commemorate today’s anniversary not for its own sake, but for theirs, all the people who involved themselves with the needs of Homestead’s Jewish community.
Ki tivneh bayit chadash, “when you build a new house.” That “when” expresses certainty, because that’s what we have always done as Jews. Where we congregate, we build communities. In that way Homestead is no different from anywhere else in the United States (or anywhere else in the world, or at any other time in our history). But the Homestead founders who came to this country “seeking peace” saw a unique opportunity in what they built here in “this glorious land of our choice,” 9 “the land of the free.” 10 A hundred years ago today they spoke of the promise this country held out for them and how their beautiful bayit chadash represented the beginnings of its fulfillment. That promise binds us, too. Today we might not have to build a new house, but it is still incumbent upon us to renew those we’ve inherited by involving ourselves with their needs.
A hundred years after the Homestead shul was dedicated, we are fortunate to take so much for granted that they could not – and that increasingly, Jewish communities elsewhere in the world cannot. Let us be worthy of our blessings and carry them forward as builders in our own generation.
To me it seemed like a pretty amazing coincidence that Sunday 9/6/1914 and Saturday 9/6/2014 would fall in the week of the same parasha. I asked my friend Ben Dreyfus, an expert on the Hebrew calendar, to weigh in. He says (emphasis is mine):
“It doesn’t seem like such a freak occurrence. The range of secular dates when Rosh Hashanah can fall is one month, so there’s a limited set of parshiot that can be read the week of September 6: Shofetim, Ki Teitzei, Ki Tavo, Nitzavim-and/or-Vayeilech, or (when RH is super-early) Ha’azinu (or in some cases, that Shabbat can be Rosh Hashanah itself). I looked at the last 30 years (including this year), and September 6 was during the week of Ki Teitzei in 8 of those years. So if those statistics hold up over longer timescales, there’s a 27% chance that September 6 in a random year would be in the week of Ki Teitzei.
“As for 100-year anniversaries in particular: 100 years is equal to 5 19-year cycles plus 5 years. In the 19-year cycle, the spacing between leap years is either 2 years or 3 years. So it depends where in the cycle you are. If those extra 5 years contain just one leap year (the middle year of the 5), then the Hebrew and secular calendars would be at very different relative positions at the beginning and end of the 100 years. But if those 5 years contain 2 leap years, then the calendar would end up somewhat close to where it started (a few days away). (2 out of 5 isn’t far off from 7 out of 19.) The latter is what has happened in this case. (9/6/1914 was 15 Elul, and 9/6/2014 will be 11 Elul.) 5674 was year 12 of the cycle, and 5774 is year 17 of the cycle; years 14 and 17 are leap years.
“Looking at the 19-year cycle, 16 out of the 19 years would have 100-year anniversaries that are sort-of close to the original year.” ↩
The Daily Messenger, 9/8/1914 ↩
The Daily Messenger, 9/8/1914, p. 2 ↩
This line from the prayer is taken from Pirkei Avot 2:2, “all who work for the needs for the community… the merit of their ancestors assists them, and their righteousness will endure forever.” Appropriate! ↩
The Daily Messenger, 9/8/1914, p. 2 ↩