Happy the eye that saw all this!
—Yom Kippur liturgy
—The people worked well together. They worked. It’s a community. We worked together.
—They had Jewish hearts.
—Milton & Lillian Burechson, Homestead Hebrew Congregation oral histories
This page presents the high-level chronology of Homestead’s Jewish community, interspersed with key events from Homestead, American, and world history. I did my best to select a mix of important events and representative details; please contact me to report any omissions or mistakes!
1880s | 1890s | 1900s | 1910s | 1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s | 1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000-present
Nine years after Homestead began to be settled, the 1880 census recorded fewer than 600 people living in the new town. None of them were Jewish, though Jewish peddlers had passed through the town throughout its first decade, watching its growth and observing the expanding opportunity for merchants to serve the newly-arriving steelworkers and their families.
- Spring 1880: Construction on the town’s steel mill began about a year after Homestead’s first industrial operation, a glass manufacturer, began operation.
November 1880: The first known Jewish resident of Homestead, Abraham Skirball, bought a lot in the town’s business district (then Sixth Avenue) and moved his family and liquor store there in early 1881. Over the course of the decade he was joined by at least a couple other families, the Segelmans and Markowitzes, plus single men like the first Hepps brother.
- March 1881: The new mill produced its first steel. It began to operate fully in September. Hundreds of buildings were built in the town during this year and the following, its first sustained period of growth.
- January-March 1882: A major strike at the steel mill turned violent, but resulted in a victory for the union. Ongoing labor unrest continued to plague the town and the mill.
- October 1883: Carnegie bought the steel mill, ushering in growth and prosperity for the town. He added new capabilities for producing in-demand products like structural steel and armor plate, making the mill the envy of the world by the end of the decade.
- July 1889: Another strike took place at the mill. It turned violent, but eventually resulted in another victory for the union – and three years of peace and prosperity until the contract was next up for renegotiation…
Though at this point Homestead had no Jewish life to speak of yet, nearby towns and cities like Pittsburgh, Allegheny, Braddock, and McKeesport had Jewish communities that Homestead’s Jews likely relied upon. Homestead’s first Jews either had lived in those towns previously or had close relatives or landsleit there.
At the start of the decade, the town had over 10,000 residents and fifteen religious congregations of almost as many denominations. There were at least four Jewish families, plus a number of single men boarding and working as peddlers, clerks, and laborers.
- July-November 1892: The famous Homestead Strike. Even afterwards the town remained in a slump, first from unemployment and then the Panic of 1893, which turned into a country-wide depression lasting until 1897.
- March 1893: For the first time, Homestead’s local paper mentioned a Jewish holiday, “Hebrew Easter,” which the town’s Jews observed in the synagogues of McKeesport or Pittsburgh.
- September 1893: The first Jewish holiday observed in Homestead was Rosh Hashana 5654, when services were held in the Second Ward Engine House!
- March 1894: Homestead Hebrew Congregation Rodef Shalom was formally organized, obtaining its state charter in May. There were 18 charter members, representing about half to two-thirds of the Jewish men in town.
- June 1894: The congregation’s first rabbi moved to Homestead with his family. Typical for this period, his many responsibilities including leading services, slaughtering animals, circumcising babies, and teaching cheder daily for two hours after school.
- March 1895: Brown’s Bridge, the first to connect Homestead and Pittsburgh, opened with a streetcar line running over it.
- March 1896: The congregation purchased land for a cemetery two and a half miles away in Homeville. Despite this progress, the community’s numbers were falling due to the prolonged depression, and their first rabbi left. A couple others saw them through the remainder of the decade. By 1897 they were down to just 10 members.
- June 1898: Carnegie bought part of the town to expand the steel mill. The previous year prosperity had finally returned to the town, and this expansion, along with the arrival of the Mesta Machine Company and a couple other new plants, produced a real estate boom and massive population growth.
- August 1898: The town’s library – part music hall and part gym – opened.
- October 1899: The newspaper mentions that a social club for young Jewish men was being organized, the earliest example of organized Jewish life outside of the shul.
Towards the close of the decade there began to be a number of Jewish stores on Eighth Avenue, the main business thoroughfare.
[My father] started out as a peddler…He was just a very small man, and they used to call him all kinds of anti-Semitic remarks, and he just couldn’t take it so he opened this little candy store.
—Allen Grinberg, Homestead Hebrew Congregation oral histories
Early in the decade the rapidly-growing industries of Homestead turned around the fortunes of the local Jewish community. The 1901-2 erection of the town’s first synagogue building proved insufficiently optimistic — almost as soon as it was built, it was too small to accommodate the community’s existing growth, let alone the unexpected influx of Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms.
The persecutions in other lands had at that time brought to us Jews from all parts of the world. They brought with them different customs, habits of thought, phases of religious beliefs, intellectual acquirements, acquired and inherited prejudices; each group sought to dominate the others, controversies arose, and at times destruction was threatened.
- February 1900: This month brought the first known instance of the congregation throwing a public ball, this one to raise money for a new synagogue. The balls continued annually through the 1900s, until separate social organizations were founded to handle this aspect of communal life. 1 The Mesta Machine Company’s plant in Homestead went into operation.
- February 1901: A lot was purchased for the synagogue between Sixth and Eighth Avenues on Ammon Street. U.S. Steel was formed by combining the Carnegie Steel Company with two other steel companies.
- August 1901: The cornerstone of the synagogue was laid. This event was the first at which the new rabbi, Rev. Mendelsohn, officiated.
- March 1902: The synagogue was dedicated. Though the date was Easter Sunday, many of the town’s most prominent non-Jewish residents attended.
- October 1902: In the aftermath of the August founding of a county-wide Jewish political club, Homestead founded its own Hebrew Political Club just before elections. At least 52 of the 85 Jewish voters in town joined. In October 1904 they donated a Torah to the synagogue.
- January 1903: The Homestead Zion Society was formed, the first local Zionist group.
- December 1904: The Homestead Lodge of the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith, No. 586, was inaugurated. They began to sponsor picnics, dances, and other social activities for the community. February 1907 saw the creation of a local lodge for the Independent Order of B’nai Abraham.
- October 1905: The Ladies’ Auxiliary of Rodef Shalom (known by 1909 as the Hebrew Ladies’ Aid Society, and as the Sisterhood starting in the ’30s) organized to help survivors of the second Kishinev pogrom earlier that month in Russia. They began organizing numerous social events as fundraisers.
- 1906: Earliest evidence of a boys’ basketball team, which competed against other Jewish teams in the area. After going through three rabbis in 1901-1906, Rev. Samuel Widom, the synagogue’s longest-serving rabbi, began during the summer.
- 1907: Under the auspices of the Ladies’ Aid the Sunday school began. Meanwhile, the Panic of 1907, which began in October, severely disrupted the steel industry through June 1908 and creating a depression in Homestead.
- 1907-1908: These are the likeliest years for a short-lived, breakaway congregation, founded as a result of strife amongst different immigrant groups — perhaps pitting the earlier Hungarian Jews against the more recent Russian arrivals. (Otherwise Homestead had one congregation for the entirety of its history — unusual for a community of its size.)
The 200-250 Jews in Homestead at the start of the decade multiplied to 700 by the end, representing 2.5% of Homestead’s population. 2 This large group not only had all of the elements of a robust, self-sufficient community, but was also well-integrated into the Jewish life of greater Pittsburgh region. Within Homestead they had attained many markers of success: prominent stores on the avenue; community members elected to the borough council, school board, and hospital board; and the first Jewish police officers, school teachers, and doctor. They were members and even leaders of local fraternal and business groups. Their sons attended college (including Harvard!) and medical school, and their daughters went to teacher’s college. Although not all shared in this success, the standard was set early for how much was possible for a Jewish person in Homestead.
The community continued to expand during this decade — not only in population, but also in organized Jewish life. The decade brought the first round of Jewish youth groups, as well as an umbrella organization to coordinate everything. The new synagogue building, dedicated in the synagogue’s 20th year, providing a better meeting space for all the activities, both religious and secular.
- 1910: By this year Homestead’s chapter of the Young Women’s Hebrew Association was formed. Throughout this decade and the next they were one of Jewish Homestead’s most active groups.
- February 1911: An arson by an “enemy of their race” destroyed the first synagogue building.
- November 1911: A lot on Tenth Ave. was purchased for the new synagogue.
- December 7, 1911: The Chevra Kadisha (burial society) was organized. 3
- January 1912: By this date there was so much going on in the Jewish community that an umbrella group, the United Hebrew Organizations, had been founded to eliminate redundant efforts.
- September 1913: The cornerstone for the new synagogue was laid.
- July 28, 1914: World War I began. Though it would be three years until the U.S. joined, the American Jewish community became quickly aware how poorly their family and friends in Europe were faring. Starting in late 1915, Homestead’s Jewish began organizing local fundraisers and participating in regional efforts to help “Jewish war sufferers” in Europe.
- September 1914: The new synagogue was dedicated.
- October 1914: It took the boys three more years than the girls to form their own youth group, a chapter of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association. They promptly began throwing dances of their own.
- January 1916: In connection with President Wilson’s proclamation of a national Jewish Relief Day on January 27, the community organized the Homestead Relief Committee for Jewish War Sufferers and raised almost $1,600 from their neighbors.
- March 1916: An initial attempt was made to organize a Ladies’ Auxiliary of the B’nai B’rith lodge in Homestead, but the group doesn’t seem to have taken off.
- April 6, 1917: The U.S. declared war on Germany, formally entering WWI. In September the synagogue had a banquet for its first group of departing soldiers. By March 1918, 26 members of the YMHA were in service, with more continuing to depart. Not all returned.
- February 1919: The Zionist District of Homestead was organized, renewing Homestead’s long-standing Zionist commitment under the umbrella of the national organization. The group remained active through the 20s. Homestead’s Troop 2 of the Boy Scouts of America, an all-Jewish troop, was organized. An all-Jewish Girl Scout Troop was organized at the beginning of October.
- July 1, 1919: Prohibition took effect, as the result of first a war-time ban, then national Prohibition. It lasted through most of 1933.
- July 1919: The synagogue threw a banquet for returning soldiers and in February 1920 dedicated a tablet commemorating all the boys who fought.
- September 18, 1919: They synagogue purchased an additional two acres of land, bringing the cemetery to its present size.
- September 21, 1919: The Great Steel Strike (also known as the “Hunky Strike”) began, lasting until January 8, 1920.
The war gave the community an opportunity to prove its patriotism to the outside world, but the balance between the younger generation’s American and Jewish values began to concern the elders.
At the beginning of the decade, after fourteen years of Rev. Widom‘s service, the synagogue leadership felt someone more modern and Americanized was needed to address the lack of engagement of their children. Their attempts to improve the situation led to chaos and tragedy. Meanwhile, as immigration from Eastern Europe resumed after WWI, the community grew rapidly, until immigration quotas passed in 1924 curtailed the number of Jews able to enter the U.S. The social groups organized even more activities to accommodate everyone.
- May 1920: The synagogue placed an ad in a Jewish newspaper to find a new rabbi.
- May 4, 1921: Rabbi Mayer Winkler, a prominent rabbi from Hungary, was hired to serve alongside Rev. Widom. Even Homestead’s local paper and Pittsburgh’s Jewish paper crowed about having a man of his caliber in their midst!
- April 21, 1922: Rabbi Winkler kicked off efforts to create a local Jewish community center separate from the shul. Having mastered English on Homestead’s dime, he resigned on September 3, 1922 for a loftier pulpit in LA. Efforts at establishing a community center faded. The shul‘s vestry rooms were used by all the town’s Jewish groups.
- September 17, 1922: Dedication of the cemetery’s new ohel, the building in which bodies were prepared for burial and funerals were held.
- July 1923: Warren G. Harding memorial service at synagogue.
- May 4, 1924: During the synagogue’s 30th anniversary celebration, the first of its anniversary celebrations, loving cups were presented to the seven remaining charter members.
- May 20, 1924: A committee was organized to address the challenges of engaging the younger generation. This resulted in a reorganization of the synagogue’s leadership, which took effect in August. By that time Rev. Widom was no longer the synagogue’s rabbi.
The time has come in the life of the Jews of Homestead when we must make some change in the religious life, if we wish to take care that our young men and women are not to be lost to [Judah].
— Committee for the Ways and Means for the Resurrection of Homestead Jewry
- September-October 1924: In the aftermath of controversial reorganization the synagogue was in chaos: meetings were acrimonious, the new rabbi quit even before he started, and Rev. Widom tragically committed suicide.
- December 1924: Rabbi Goldberg began as the new rabbi. Things settled down until he went a little crazy when it was time to renegotiate his contract and quit just before the High Holy Days in 1927.
- January 1926: Two Torahs were donated to the synagogue and accepted at a siyum in February.
- November 1926: The Hebrew school added student clubs and an orchestra to raise students’ morale.
- December 1927: Rev. Rakusin from Cleveland was hired. He was welcomed in a banquet the following summer.
- October 24, 1929: The stock market crash began, spiraling into the Great Depression.
Because this decade is the first for which minutes of congregation meetings survive, we know much more about the character and traditions of the congregation than for the previous thirty years. Various tradition well-known from later decades were already in place (and perhaps had been for some time): the High Holiday choir and annual seat committee, the matzah committee, kosher food supervision by the rabbi, the purchase of etrogim for Sukkot, the surprisingly popular annual chevra kadisha dinner, and organized charity to durch-geyers, or transients.
Some things changed over the course of the decade: investigations of proposed members by an approval committee stopped happening, and separate children’s services for the High Holidays in the basement began.
There were other controversies, too, besides the choice of rabbi. Dancing was not permitted in the synagogue, not even in the basement’s social space, nor were card parties. The women were especially incensed by the continuing refusal of their requests and asked for representation on the board in February 1929. The rabbi needed a separate place to shecht, or ritually slaughter, chickens, but no one could agree on a solution. Board members disputed whether the rabbi should be allowed to sermonize in Yiddish. The morale of Hebrew school students remained an ongoing issue; in December 1928 the board discussed the issue of kids quitting after their Bar Mitzvah (!). Adult members quit the synagogue, too, often for non-payment of dues. The synagogue could never manage to “make outsiders pay for benefits derived from the Congregation,” which became a serious concern since for the later half of the decade the synagogue continually ran a deficit. Despite these financial issues, the synagogue contributed to numerous charities, including the Homestead District Charity Board.
Overall, Jewish life in Homestead was nearing its peak. The population likely topped more than 1,100 residents. 4 This decade, though, was when the nearby Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh became the center of Jewish life for the area, attracting members of the congregation and especially their grown children.
1930s: The Community at Its Height
The 30s were a transformative decade for the synagogue. National and international events opened the community’s concerns once again to the fate of Jews around the world, and questions of how best to help linked them in a new and enduring way to the other area Jewish communities. Within the community, though the Depression created many challenges in retaining synagogue members, the synagogue’s overall financial position remained steady, and social life expanded dramatically with many community picnics, dances, plays, and other entertainments, most organized by the shul revitalized social committee.
You do have to remember those were depression years, too. So, the shul was a source of great entertainment, and it was very central to our lives…They were difficult times, and the entertainment all centered around the shul.
—Florence Hiedovitz, Homestead Hebrew Congregation oral histories
As the synagogue slowly began to take on aspects of a community center, older traditions began to fade. The new by-laws published in 1934 were not translated into Yiddish. Resolutions were passed to deal with the growing problem of intermarriage. And though it took the entire decade, card parties and dances were at last permitted in the shul’s basement.
- November 1, 1931: With the Depression a couple years old, members of the congregation petitioned for a reduction in dues. Their petition was refused since the congregation could not reduce its expenses sufficiently. The Depression continued to worsen until March 1933, when FDR was inaugurated.
- September 1931: Rabbi A. M. Pinkas of Kittanning started. A young man, he married early the following year and involved himself heavily in youth activities, organizing the new (and very active) Homestead Jewish Dramatic Club and the Junior Rodef Shalom.
- January 30, 1933: Hitler appointed chancellor of Germany. Within a couple years the local UJA was raising money to help the Jews of Germany, and local efforts later expanded to include the Jews of Poland.
- June 1933: The Homestead Aleph Club, Homestead’s A.Z.A. chapter, was organized.
- January 28, 1934: The community celebrated the twentieth anniversary of its building and the fortieth anniversary of its founding.
- June 1934: First time Homestead participated in the regional UJA Campaign, the region’s foremost charitable effort that grew to cover all the small-town Jewish communities of Western PA.
- March 17-18, 1936: The Great Flood left 1,200 people homeless.
- March 3, 1937: Under pressure from Roosevelt in the aftermath of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, U.S. Steel signed a collective bargaining agreement. The Homestead mill became unionized for the first time since the 1892 strike. On Labor Day 1941 a memorial to the 1892 strike was dedicated in Homestead at last.
- May 1937: Homestead’s chapter of B’nai B’rith Women organized. Perhaps related, the previous month the Ladies’ Aid changed their name to the more modern “Sisterhood” and affiliated with the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism.
- November 13, 1938: Four days after Kristallnacht, the shul formed a new committee, the Jewish Welfare board, to assist Jews overseas and locally. This effort grew into the Homestead District Aid Committee was founded, representing the Congregation, Sisterhood, B’nai Brith Women and the local business men. The synagogue minutes record refugees arriving in Homestead whom they looked after.
- March 10, 1939: A new Zionist District was established in Homestead after a three-year Arab revolt in Palestine and just before the White Paper limited Jewish immigration there. Both situations alarmed Jews worldwide, and the Homestead community joined Western Pennsylvania-wide efforts to raise money and lobby against these measures.
- September 1, 1939: Germany invaded Poland. WWII began in Europe.
- December 13, 1939: The A.Z.A rented the basement of the synagogue for a New Year’s Dance, marking a turning point in the use of the synagogue for social affairs. A ladies’ card party followed a couple months later.
The youth groups turned over during this period. The Y.M. and Y.W.H.A., so popular in the teens and twenties, faded early in the decade. The AZA group was the first of a new wave of youth organized that continued forming into the early 40s. Though Jewish communal life continued to thrive, by the end of the decade, Homestead’s Jewish population was on the decline. 5
The return of prosperity after the Depression produced a decade of tradition and change, the last in which the shul’s original members shaped the community and the rabbi gave (occasional) Yiddish sermons, but the first for the new social groups to reinvigorate Jewish life outside of services (but not outside of the synagogue, as the shul’s meeting rooms hosted all these groups, even for dances and card parties!). Throughout the decade there was a full social calendar of events for men, women, children, ranging from traditional events like the annual Purim ball, Sisterhood anniversary dinners, and Chevra Kadisha dinners, to movies, dances, basketball games, and other fun.
This was my conception of the people in that period: [the shul] was their home away from home. They worked all day, and they came home and had dinner and would get together. They would have a board meeting or have a special meeting for this or that. It was always something, but it was always the shul which was the hub…You didn’t go home and watch TV…There was always something going on at the synagogue. You would go to evening services, and you would stay and discuss something that was coming up or try to solve a problem or whatever. The Sisterhood would always have an annual dinner, which was a big, exciting thing every year. You worked hard to raise money.
— Clarice Mandell Katz, Homestead Hebrew Congregation oral histories
Although the peak of Homestead’s Jewish population was behind it, Homestead’s Jewish community, now spread across neighboring suburbs like Munhall, Homestead Park, and Squirrel Hill, remained very active. The community’s involvement with Pittsburgh and regional Jewish groups only increased; Homestead was no longer considered “out of town” as other small towns were. Towards the end of the decade Homestead’s Jewish population was down to 600 people (from 1,100 in the early ’30s). There were intermittent problems with school and minyan (daily service) attendance, likely exacerbated by a disaffected rabbi, as well as the first signs of the synagogue’s lay leadership beginning to calcify.
- January 21, 1940: The newly-organized Homestead Junior group was installed into B’nai Brith (later called B’nai B’rith Girls). They were the 10th BBG chapter in the whole country! Over the coming years the girls ran a regular calendar of social activities, plus they knitted for the Red Cross, created scrapbooks for soldiers’ hospitals, sold war bonds, and helped organize a blood drive.
- February 2, 1941: The re-organized H.S. Schwartz Aleph Club (A.Z.A.) of Homestead, PA installed their first set of officers. Besides their social events, they held minyan on Sunday mornings and jointly held Friday night services with the BBG. They also fielded a basketball team in the Irene Kaufman Settlement-AZA League, winning the championship in 1948 and 1949.
- March 9, 1941: The new chapter of the Homestead Lodge of the B’nai B’rith, no. 1454, was installed. The lodge took on the name of Melvin Frank in early 1948 after his passing.
July 2, 1941: Homesteaders learned that the U.S. government had designated half their town for demolition in order to expand the mill for it largest war-time, steel mill expansion project. Everything below the Sixth Avenue train tracks was razed by spring 1942, displacing 1,566 families (~9,000 people), including many stalwarts of the Jewish community. 6
- December 7, 1941: Pearl Harbor brought the entry of the U.S. into WWII. 134 boys from the Jewish community went off to war, some never to return. For the duration of the war the Sisterhood ran a Rodef Shalom Red Cross chapter, through which they donated more than 4,000 items of clothing and supplies and raised $1.2MM in war bonds, even sponsoring a bomber. Additionally, the community looked after Jewish boys from afar who found themselves stationed in the Homestead area.
- April 1943: The last incarnation of an umbrella group, the Homestead Jewish Activities Organization (covering the congregation, its Chevra Kadisha, and Sisterhood; the local Zionist organization and Hadassah; and men’s, women’s, boys’, and girls’ B’nai B’rith groups) coordinated fundraising efforts, promoted each others’ events, and most importantly avoided scheduling conflicts in the synagogue’s meeting rooms. Throughout the decade events jointly run by these groups were frequent.
- March 19, 1944: In the midst of war, well aware of the ongoing destruction of the Jews of Europe, the synagogue burned its mortgage and celebrated its 50th anniversary. The last four surviving charter members were honored. (The last one passed in ’51.)
- April 1944: After almost 13 years as Homestead’s rabbi, Rabbi Pinkas’ contract was not renewed. There had been complaints about his inattention for some time, and his requests for time off for health reasons had become too significant. The next rabbi, Nathan Fox, only lasted six months, because his wife was not well.
- November 1944: Rabbi Joshua Weiss started. Actively engaged in Orthodox and Zionist causes, he was well-known throughout the Jewish community in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. His reputation helped to bolster the whole Homestead Jewish community.
- December 19, 1945: With the war over and most soldiers home, a local post of the Jewish War Veterans held its first planning meeting. The first officers were elected in March 1946. Besides social activities, the group raised money for a memorial plaque, which was dedicated in April 1948 at a joint banquet of all the community organizations.
- December 7, 1947: Jerry Schwartz was elected president of the synagogue. He was the last president the shul ever had, serving for the next 30 years until his death.
- May 14, 1948: The State of Israel was proclaimed! Homestead participated energetically in larger efforts to raise money and collect clothing, food, books, and other supplies. Homestead’s Young Judaea chapter was organized by early ’48, and its leader, Rabbi Weiss’ daughter, made aliyah at the end of the year. (Tragically, she died in May 1949 in Tel Aviv after a short illness.)
- September 19, 1948: The Americanism committee of the Melvin Frank Lodge sponsored a thirteen-part radio series on the new Homestead-based radio station, WHOD, entitled “Lest We Forget,” which dealt with the American dream. Rabbi Weiss spoke for the first time on the station 10/10/1948, and starting February 1 the station presented a fifteen-minute Jewish program three days a week.
- June 12, 1949: The new part of cemetery, which dated back to the purchase in 1919, was formally dedicated. Numerous repairs to the whole synagogue were undertaken throughout that summer and fall, complementing the Sisterhood’s work on updating the kitchen and vestry rooms, which began the previous year.
- July 6, 1949: Reflecting the shift of the community’s residents, the first event in Homestead Park — a B’nai B’rith Women Lawn Party — took place. Community events in this neighborhood were frequent occurrences throughout the ’50s.
Most of the shul’s surviving artifacts date to this decade — the chupa, the WWII plaques, the second WWI plaque, and the earliest yahrzeit tablets.
The 1950s were the glory years for Homestead. For much of the decade the mill ran at full capacity, so everyone worked regularly. On Saturdays people came from all over to shop on Eighth Avenue, which enabled the town’s merchants to share in the boom. 7 And yet, the Jewish community’s vitality began to fade during this period. The older generation maintained their businesses in Homestead until they retired, though many lived just across the river in the much larger and more fashionable Jewish community in Squirrel Hill. The next generation of committed members, most of whom grew up there, congregated in Homestead Park, a suburb near to Munhall, though the majority of young families also ended up in Squirrel Hill. Another major factor in the decline was the shul’s decision to remain Orthodox, which pushed others in the young generation to Squirrel Hill’s Reform and Conservative synagogues. 8
- November 6, 1950: A special meeting of the congregation considered the Sisterhood’s requests to permit men and women to sit together at services and to include responsive readings in English. The only concession was to offer a separate service in English at the next High Holidays. (The records between 1951-1963 are sparse; what does survive does not report any subsequent conversations about liberalizing the shul’s practice. The shul remained Orthodox ’til the end. Interestingly, the Sisterhood was affiliated as early as 1945 with the Conservative Women’s League.)
The President (Jerome J. Schwartz) stated that his generation was a lost generation, lost in the transition between the European and American Jews, which grew up without a good Jewish education and lacking the old spirit and some religious ties. He said that it is unfashionable to belong to an Orthodox Congregation. It would not make any difference if men and women sit together or apart, either in the services or in the spirit of the Congregation because this generation cannot change. Since the solution is uncertain, he believes it best to rely on and follow those who have gone before.
- November 1951: A local chapter of the B’nai Brith Youth Organization formed, merging boys and girls since their numbers were no longer large enough to support separate groups.
- August 1953: After nine years, Rabbi Weiss left Homestead to take a pulpit in Pittsburgh, ending a couple decades of rabbinic stability.
- April 9, 1954: The new rabbi, Jack Segal, was introduced to the congregation. He was full of youthful energy and ideas, which brought him into conflict with some of the oldest members.
- December 5, 1954: The congregation celebrated its Sixtieth Anniversary with a community-wide banquet. The borough celebrated its Diamond Jubilee eight months later.
December 16, 1955: The shul’s first Bat Mitzvah took place on this Friday evening. The girl was the twin sister of a boy celebrating his Bar Mitzvah the next morning. A group Bat Mitzvah took place in April 1956, but June 1959 was the only other time a single Bat Mitzvah was celebrated in Homestead.
- May 30, 1956: The evening after the community’s war memorial was dedicated in the cemetery, the cemetery was desecrated.
- August 1956: After one two-year term, Rabbi Segal left Homestead to take a pulpit in McKeesport. A few months later, Rabbi Hyman Shapiro took over as rabbi.
- August 1958: After one two-year term, Rabbi Shapiro left Homestead to take a pulpit on Long Island. A few months later, Rabbi Murray Greenfield arrived, but he stayed less than a year.
- July 16, 1959: On this day began the biggest strike in the history of U.S. Steel. It lasted 114 days through November 7, severely affecting Homestead.
- September 1959: Rabbi Marvin Pritzker of Aliquippa took over as rabbi, ending the rabbinical revolving door.
The American Jewish Yearbook’s population estimates suggests that the community held steady during the decade. However, within the community the picture wasn’t all stagnation. The shul was improved in the middle of the decade and the cemetery surveyed towards the end. The Sisterhood and Chevra Kadisha kept up their annual dinners, and the Sisterhood and B’nai B’rith Women ran full calendars of events which got respectable attendance. (The B’nai B’rith Men, alas, seem to have faded after 1950.) And the community always did its share for the Tri-State United Jewish Appeal, making sizable, bi-annual contributions. Nevertheless, the congregation was getting older, and few children were being born into the community. Though there was much youth-oriented activity for the small number of kids who were there — Hebrew school, Junior Congregation, annual Confirmations, and BBYO events — the writing was on the wall.
The synagogue itself ran a full slate of its usual activities for most of the decade, but social and especially youth activities became much curtailed.
It seems to me the problem with Homestead was not one kid ever returned. Once they grew up, they left Homestead. And as their parents grew older, they left the area or they died, and nothing was replaced. Not one kid ever returned to Homestead.
–Irwin Gross, Homestead Hebrew Congregation oral histories
- November 2, 1962: “Black Friday,” the day U.S. Steel laid off several thousand workers in the Homestead region with no warning. Nevertheless, the heyday for the steel industry continued through the 60s.
- March 1963: The board decided to offer free membership to newlyweds in hopes of attracting new members.
- April 1963: The house next door to the synagogue was purchased as a home for the synagogue’s rabbi.
- Summer 1965: Trolley service through Homestead was eliminated, which contributed to the decline of Eighth Avenue’s popularity as a shopping destination. The following year the Leona Theatre, once a popular destination, closed.
- July 1965: General membership meetings of the congregation were reduced to one per year, due to lack of attendance. At the same time, the synagogue tried Sunday breakfast minyans during the summer, which were very successful.
- June 4, 1967: The synagogue’s last confirmation class graduated.
- August 1967: After eight years, Rabbi Pritzker moved on.
- August 1968: After a year of searching, the congregation hired its next rabbi, Morris Heisler. Though he began Hebrew school on September 9 in the usual way, by November he was meeting informally with students twice a month, which petered out by the end of the year. He left in June 1969 to become a chaplain in the army.
- February 23, 1969: Probably the last of the annual chevra kadisha dinners.
- October 1969: Rabbi Israel Feiner began as the congregation’s next rabbi.
- December 7, 1969: The congregation celebrated its 75th anniversary celebration, probably its last such event.
According to a 1964 Jewish population survey, there were half as many Jews in Homestead as in ’59. 9 In a September 1967 board meeting, one attendee noted the “current downhill trend” in the congregation. They turned down a proposal in December to merge with the synagogue their former Rabbi Weiss was leading. When they celebrated their 75th anniversary at the end of the decade, they could indeed commemorate “three quarters of a century of continuity of the congregation,” but the most important component of continuity — educating children — was no longer a possibility.
1970s: Formal Operations Cease
Though the congregation recognized it was in decline, for much of the decade they attempted to operate as normal. For the most part they made minyans, though with effort. They kept up repairs on the synagogue, even contemplated larger projects, and for at least the first half of the decade they continued raising and distributing tsedakah, or charity.
At the same time, due to mounting layoffs of steel workers and the opening of nearby shopping malls, businesses were closing throughout Homestead, including the community’s oldest businesses, Half Brothers and both Grinberg stores. New stores did not replace the old, and Eighth Avenue began to look run-down. 10
- August 1970: A couple months after Rabbi Feiner left, Rabbi Morton Moskowitz assumed Homestead’s pulpit. He also taught at Hillel Academy in Pittsburgh, since the job at Homestead was not full-time.
- 1971: In response to declining numbers, Munhall, Homestead, and West Homestead School Districts merged into the Steel Valley School District.
- March 1972: The community concluded it most successful Israel Bond drive ever.
- December 10, 1972: The Sisterhood held its 67th anniversary dinner, which seems to have been their last public event. Sisterhood folded sometime during 1973-1978.
- February 1973: Probably Homestead’s last annual Israel Bond drive, this one celebrating Israel’s silver anniversary.
- August 1974: Rabbi Herschel Deutch began as the rabbi, replacing Rabbi Moskowitz, who left the area.
- 1974: Board meeting frequency dropped to four per year…
- 1975: Then to two per year.
- March 30, 1977: The last Bar Mitzvah in the synagogue — for Marc Katz.
- June 1977: Departure of Rabbi Deutch, the synagogue’s last rabbi. The rabbi’s house was sold in December of the following year.
- June 25, 1977: Death of Jerome Schwartz, who had been president of the synagogue since 1948. There never was another president; thereafter there was only a “manager.”
- January 1978: The Board voted to suspend the synagogue’s by-laws. In place of a Board of Directors, a management committee of volunteers, both men and women, was assembled. The minutes from the May 1978 meeting, which formalized this new arrangement, were the last ever taken. During this same year the Homestead Economic Revitalization Corporation was formed to attempt to revitalize Homestead’s business district.
- November 27, 1979: At the end of a decade of plant closings across the country, the first blow to the Homestead Works came with the announcement of the closing of two of its plants.
- December 19, 1979: With too few advertisements coming in, the Homestead Daily Messenger ceased publication.
Throughout the decade a small group of members remained loyal to the synagogue, organizing High Holy Day, Shabbat, and Sunday minyans followed by breakfast. Meanwhile, as the steel mill was closed piece by piece, Homestead’s steel workers put up a fierce resistance. By the time the mill was closed for good, a depression worse than the Great Depression had settled on the town. 11
- August 1980: Centennial celebration of the incorporation of Homestead.
- April 24, 1981: Centennial celebration of the tapping of the first Homestead steel.
- September 1980, 1981: The congregation invited the general public to join their High Holiday services at no cost.
- December 1981: The announcement of more plant closings ended the Homestead Works as a self-sufficient steel production facility.
- February 1983: The Mesta Machine Company declared bankruptcy and closed.
- June 1985: Two more Homestead mills were closed…
- May 1986: And then another, just before…
- July 25, 1986: The Homestead Works closed for good.
- February-March 1988: The notorious Remaking Cities conference, during which Prince Charles visited Homestead and architects proposed to use the closed mill for flower shows.
- May 15, 1988: The last wedding in the synagogue.
- Spring 1989: Around this time the synagogue ceased to hold Saturday morning services. Thereafter they met on Sundays at 9 AM for morning minyan and breakfast afterwards. High Holiday services continued. Later that year, the steel mill began to be razed.
- October 4, 1989: The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania kicked off a year-long exhibit, “Homestead: The Story of a Steel Town.” “How will the past be used?” they asked.
1990s: Closing and Preservation
- September 1991: Probably this was the last time that High Holy Day services were held in the synagogue.
- 1992: To mark the hundredth anniversary of the strike, commemoration events were held in Homestead and Pittsburgh.
We were bringing Russians in there to make a minyan. We would pick up everybody. Every Saturday we’d go along in a car and pick up three Russians, five Russians, and we’d get to shul, and we’d still need one more. We’d call [various people]: just come, we need a tenth one, and we don’t have it. And they’d say, “Let’s sell this place. Let’s get rid of it. We’re going to need a furnace, we’re going to need new glass, we’re going to need a new roof, we’re going to need a paint job.” I never believed them. I just never believed them until finally they all spoke and said that…we need them all right now. And if you put that against what we can get for the shul, that’s like making money, and we’ll put it into the cemetery. O.K. if you do that I’m willing to go along with it, as long as we’re going to put it into the cemetery. Not that I was the only one, but it took all of us to talk about this, and we hemmed and hawed many times.
–Allen Smooke, Homestead Hebrew Congregation oral histories
- January 19, 1993: The synagogue was sold to the Community of the Crucified One.
- February 1993: The records of the synagogue and other artifacts were donated to the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania (the predecessor of the Heinz History Center). The kitchen and benches were donated to a shul and a school.
- Summer 1993-1994: Oral histories were taken of twenty-nine members of Homestead’s Jewish community. The demolition of the steel mill was completed.
- 1994: The synagogue’s aron kodesh, or ark, was installed in Beth Shalom’s Homestead Hebrew Congregation room, which also became the new home of the community’s yahrzeit tablets, war memorial plaques, Torahs, and other Judaica.
- July 19-21, 1996: The Jacobson/Friendlander family, probably the largest extended family from the community, organized a reunion that included a visit to the new Homestead Hebrew Chapel at Beth Shalom.
- October 9, 1996: A major fire at Beth Shalom destroyed the ark, Torahs, and all the other items donated.
- December 15, 1996: The Homestead Torahs were buried in the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery in a service attended by two hundred people.
- 1999: The Waterfront shopping mall opened on the site of the former mill.
Though the synagogue was sold early in the decade, the community’s all-volunteer chevra kadisha continued to manage the cemetery and organize annual visitations before the High Holidays.
Throughout the 1990s a new Jewish community grew in Homestead comprised of the older generation of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union.
- June 8, 2008: Cemetery marker for the burned Torah scrolls dedicated. Around this time the path was paved in the cemetery for the first time!
- September 6, 2014: This website launched on the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the second Homestead synagogue building.
- May 20, 2015: The membership of Congregation Beth Shalom voted to take over management of the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery at the behest of the cemetery managers.
- October 14, 2015: The court approved the transfer of the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery and its assets to Congregation Beth Shalom. After more than sixty years of service on the chevra kadisha, Robert Katz, Allen Smooke, and Dick Silk stepped down.
It’s quite likely these balls started in the late 1890s, though documentation is sketchy. ↩
The starting value is based on a comparison of the faulty 1900 census with the 1900 city directory. The end value is based on the 1910 census alone. The 1907-8 American Jewish Yearbook reported 150 people, definitely unreliable considering there was more than that even in 1900. ↩
This date is from the pinkas. (A 1922 Criterion article suggests Widom founded it when he arrived in 1906.) There were 27 adult burials before this date and perhaps almost as many child burials, which probably meant that it was a question of operating under its own leadership, though under the supervision of the synagogue. ↩
As reported by the 1927 American Jewish Yearbook. ↩
By 1937 the American Jewish Yearbook reported 900 Jews in Homestead, fewer than a decade earlier. ↩
Ironically, though the new furnaces were fired in June 1943, the war was mostly over before the new mill hit full production. After the war, U.S. Steel bought the mill for pennies on the dollar, leaving it well-situated to capitalize on the post-war demand for consumer products. ↩
Serrin, pp. 282-4, 292 ↩
Florence Hiedovitz’s oral history, July 1993, p. 10 of transcript ↩
I wonder how reliable these surveys are, though, as all ’til the last one in ’84 claimed 300, too. ↩
Serrin, p. 341 ↩
Serrin, p. 362 ↩