The Jewish community of Homestead emerged after the borough was chartered in1880 and the Homestead Steel Works was built the following year. The first documented Jewish resident was Abraham Skirboll, who immigrated to Western Pennsylvania from Lithuania in 1865. After living in Pittsburgh and Allegheny City, he moved to Homestead with his wife and children in early 1881 to open a saloon catering to workers at the mill.
Over the following decade, economic opportunities created by the mill brought other Jews to Homestead, including Ralph Segelman, who emigrated from Lithuania in 1884 and established a jewelry store, and Samuel Markowitz, who came from Hungary and lived elsewhere in the region before opening a grocery store in Homestead. By the time of the Homestead Strike, in 1892, about 10 Jewish families and several single Jewish men were living in Homestead, mostly on the same block as the strikers’ headquarters and opposite the hill where a company-backed militia encamped for four months.
The small Jewish community held its first High Holiday services in 1893, at the Second Ward Engine House. The formal start of the congregation occurred five months later, when Markowitz struggled to assemble a minyan (a quorum of 10 men) to recite kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) on his father’s yahrzeit (anniversary of death). Hearing of this “disgrace,” a Hungarian clothier named Isadore S. Grossman pointed out that Homestead certainly had enough Jewish men to support a congregation and should form one.
The community organized the “Homestead Hebrew Congregation Rodef Schulom” on March 18, 1894. The 18 charter members were mostly Hungarian immigrants under the age of 30 and had been in United States for an average of nine years. Five of them – Ralph Segelman, Samuel Markowitz, Samuel K. Markowitz, Isadore Grossman, Bernhardt Hepps and Joseph Lasdusky – also signed a charter obtained from the state in May. That same month, the congregation hired its first rabbi, Rev. S. J. Featherman, who had immigrated from Hungary and held a pulpit in Indianapolis. The congregation also started an after-school cheder (religious school). After Ralph Segelman, the first president of the congregation, died of pneumonia in June 1894, the congregation raised money for a cemetery and purchased land in Homeville in March 1896.
As the steel industry contracted during the Panic of 1896, many Jews left the area and membership of Homestead Hebrew Congregation shrank, reaching a low of 10 in 1897. But after Andrew Carnegie announced plans in 1898 to expand the mill, and other heavy industry came to Homestead, the community started to grow again. In January 1900, the congregation had launched a building fund for a synagogue, raising money through annual balls attended by leading Homesteaders and fellow Jews around the area. The congregation laid the cornerstone for a synagogue on Ammon Street on August 18, 1901, and dedicated the building on March 30, 1902, with Rabbi Aaron Mordechai Ashinsky of Pittsburgh giving a dedicatory address in German and a closing address and benediction in English. The congregation burned the mortgage on June 15, 1903.
The Jewish community of Homestead formed several short-lived political, Zionist, social and youth groups through the first decade of the 1900s and also several more enduring organizations, including the Homestead Lodge of the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith organized in December 1904 and the Ladies’ Auxiliary of Rodef Shalom (later the Sisterhood) in October 1905. A Sunday school, separate from the cheder, began in 1907.
During this decade, the predominantly Hungarian character of the community changed as immigrants fleeing pogroms in Russia began arriving in Homestead. Among them was Samuel Widom, who became the longest-serving rabbi of the congregation. Aside from a short-lived breakaway congregation, about which little is known today, Homestead Hebrew Congregation remained the only Jewish congregation in the borough for the entirety of its existence, an extremely rare occurrence for a Jewish community of its size.
This decade also saw the establishment of many Jewish-owned businesses on Eighth Avenue, the main street of Homestead. Several stores established around the turn of the century, including Lasdusky’s (1893), Grinbergs’ (1893), Half Brothers’ (1899), Friedlander’s (1899) and Lincoff’s (1908), remained going concerns for decades. One, Jacob Little’s shoe store, started in 1912 and is still open in Squirrel Hill today. Homestead hired its first Jewish public school teacher in 1901 and its first Jewish police officer by 1902. Joseph Lasdusky was elected to the school board in 1906, and Morris Frankel was appointed to the borough council in 1907. Over time, members of the community joined the borough’s fraternal and business groups and even served on the board of a local bank.
In 1911, the synagogue was seriously damaged in an arson thought to be the work of an “enemy of their race,” according to a newspaper article. Instead of making repairs, the congregation built a new synagogue that could accommodate the growing Jewish population. The cornerstone for this synagogue was laid on September 28, 1913, and the building was dedicated on September 6, 1914. Unlike the first synagogue, which was paid off within a few years, this mortgage remained active until 1944, when the congregation held a mortgage burning ceremony in conjunction with its 50th anniversary.
As the congregation was building its new synagogue, the Jewish community formed an umbrella group called the United Hebrew Organizations to better coordinate activities amongst the many local Jewish organizations. These included a chevra kadisha (burial society), organized separately from the shul in 1911; a Young Women’s Hebrew Association chapter founded in 1912 and a Y.M.H.A. chapter founded in 1914; and a new Zionist group, a Boy Scout troop and Girl Scout troop organized at the end of the decade.
The Jewish population of Homestead was approximately 650 by 1918, according to the American Jewish Yearbook, and peaked at 1,100 during the 1920s. This decade also saw the beginning of several well known Jewish-owned businesses in Homestead, including the Jacobson-Gordon and Mervis car dealerships, the Weinberger and Saron drug stores, Hilk’s furniture store, Carpe’s grocery, Victor’s shoes and the Levine Brothers’ hardware store. Bert Kline became editor of the Homestead Daily Messenger newspaper in 1920 and remained in the position until 1950. Herman Samuels became chief of the Homestead Fire Department in 1929 and served until 1954, when he died while fighting a fire.
While community activities flourished in the years between the wars, synagogue leaders worried about the knowledge and observance of the community’s children. An effort to establish a stand-alone community center in the mid-1920s failed. By the 1930s, the congregation was using the synagogue building for these communal functions. Every night of the week its basement “vestry rooms” drew different groups of Jewish Homesteaders for the activities of all the town’s Jewish groups. Those included new organizations like Hadassah (by 1931), A.Z.A. (1933), B’nai B’rith Women (1937), and B’nai B’rith Girls (1940). Groups organized regular dinners, dances and an annual community picnic.
As Squirrel Hill became a center of Jewish life in Pittsburgh during the 1920s and 1930s, many Jewish families in Homestead crossed the Monongahela River to shop or to live in Pittsburgh while maintaining their businesses and sometimes even their synagogue affiliation in Homestead. Other families moved to the adjacent boroughs of Homestead Park and Munhall. This outward migration accelerated in 1941 with the expansion of the Homestead Works, which led to the demolition of large areas north of Fifth Avenue.
The total population of Homestead peaked after World War II, when the mill was running at full capacity and Eighth Avenue remained a major shopping and entertainment destination. But by the 1950s, the membership of Homestead Hebrew Congregation largely lived outside of the borough. Children rarely stayed in Homestead once they married and started families. A Sisterhood-led effort to moderate the religious observance of the Orthodox congregation failed (although the congregation held its first bat mitzvah in 1955). A proposed merger with the new Beth Israel Center in Jefferson Hills failed when Homestead Hebrew Congregation balked at joining the Conservative movement. After Rabbi Joshua Weiss left the congregation in 1953, Homestead Hebrew Congregation struggled to maintain consistent rabbinic leadership, with the exception of Rabbi Marvin Pritzker, who served from 1959 until the last confirmation class in 1967. Until the mid-1960s, a co-ed BBYO chapter provided a way for Jewish children in Homestead to socialize with other Jewish children around the region. One of the last children enrolled in the Hebrew school was the actor Jeff Goldblum, who had his bar mitzvah at the synagogue in 1965. The community organized religious services, annual chevra kadisha and Sisterhood dinners, Israel Bonds drives and other events through the 1970s.
The business district of Homestead began declining in the 1960s, and the gradual closing of the Homestead Works between 1979 and 1986 led to the closure of many of the remaining businesses and religious institutions. The formal operation of the synagogue ended with the death of long-time president Jerome Schwartz in 1978, although a management committee oversaw upkeep of the synagogue building and held religious services on Saturday, Sundays and High Holidays into the 1990s. The congregation formally dissolved after being unable to organize a minyan for the High Holidays in 1991.
Homestead Hebrew Congregation sold the synagogue in 1993 and donated the Torahs, ark, Judaica, yahrzeit tablets and veterans’ plaques to Beth Shalom Congregation in Squirrel Hill, which created the Homestead Hebrew Chapel to house them. The chapel was destroyed in a 1996 fire and rebuilt with replica plaques. It remains in daily use.
This exhibit was assembled in partnership with HomesteadHebrews.com.