Trends in membership of the Homestead Hebrew Congregation

Homestead's Jewish had one synagogue for almost all of its existence. According to Lee Shai Weissbach's research into small-town Jewish communities, a community of Homestead's size ought to have more than one shul, but it did not. Homestead also did not have a Jewish community center, though it tried to create one in the early 20s. The congregation was the only place to pray, and the synagogue building was the one place to meet. As a result, the fortunes of the synagogue had an outsized impact on the town's whole Jewish community. Trends in synagogue participation therefore allow us to understand a broader story about the town's Jewish community.

Below are three different version of the same bar graph showing the number of synagogue members per year, 1894-1993. They reveal dimensions of the synagogue's history only hinted at by the surviving records.

1. Synagogue members by birth country


  • 1900-1910: Note that at the start of the decade, the synagogue was majority Hungarian, but by the end it was evenly split between Russians and Hungarians. The rise in pogroms in this decade explains why the rise in Russian immigration to the U.S., but within Homestead it created strife as the character of the community changed. The synagogue's history relates:
    The persecution in Europe kept on, and brought to us Jews from all parts of the world, they brought with them different customs, habits of thought, phases of religious beliefs, acquired and inherited prejudices, each group sought to dominate the others, controversies arose, and finally some decided to organize their own Cong. They obtained a charter calling themselves Cong. Bnai Jacob. They kept it up for about 2 years, and finally they realized that a house divided against itself can not stand. So they surrendered the charter and rejoined the Rodef Sholom Congregation.
  • 1920s & 1930s: The split between Russians and Hungarians remained about even thereafter. Seeing this trend so starkly adds context to some delightful anecdotes from the synagogue's oral histories:

    Ann Powell: Do you remember differences in the synagogues between the Hungarians…

    Allen Smooke: They sat different places. Everybody sat. The Weinbergers and the Smookes and the Leibowitzes – these are all Hungarians – and the Heppses, we all sat close together.

    AP: So, here in one part were the Hungarians…

    AS: There were cliques, yes.

    AP: And they were partly by where the people came from?

    AS: Yes.

    AP: And then there were the Russians, and they sort of…

    AS: The Russians were the Steins and who else, the Exlers and…They would stick almost all together. And the Lazars. They were almost always on that side, with Oscar Cohen’s family. And on the other side of the wall was all the Seiavitzes, and all them, they were Litvaks. That’s right, all the Litvaks sat on the other side. Right, it’s true! The Seiavitzes and the Saevitzes… Where’d the Katzes sit? They sat there, but I don’t know what they were. Some of the Katzes were Hungarian, and some of the Katzes were something else.

    Jacob Carpe: We used to have a great picnic at Wildwood and we had a ball game between the Russians and the Hungarians. (TAH: Newspaper articles suggest this was in the 20s and/or 30s.)

    AP: Were there factions? Were the Hungarians a separate faction?

    JC: Well, in shul, it wasn’t that bad. They used to fight for control of the shul and stuff like that, I don’t know, it was more symbolic than anything else.

    Daniel Schwartz: In the shul there was always friction between the Hungarian Jews and the Litvak Jews...The Hungarians considered themselves above the Litvaks and the Russians.

    AP: Did they really fight over...

    DS: Oh, they used to argue all the time.

    AP: Did they have different ideas about how the shul should be organized?

    DS: No. I don't know, they used to sort of, it was, it wasn't serious you know. It wasn't serious.

  • 1921 & 1922: This spike in membership is related to a dispute in the synagogue, which was probably connected to the Russian/Hungarian rivalry.
  • 1950s: The synagogue's membership went into an irrevocable decline mid-decade. I will explore some of the reasons below. But it's worth noting here that the synagogue in Pleasant Hills opened in 1958. The two communities considered the possibility of a merger, but it never came to pass because the new congregation was Conservative and the old-timers in Homestead insisted their synagogue remain Orthodox. A merger, however, would have reversed the Homestead community's fortunes for the next few decades, since Pleasant Hills was attracting many young families whose fathers worked at Bettis Atomic, and Homestead was attracting... almost no one.

2. Synagogue members by relationship to other members


In this version, purple indicates what I call “first generation” members – people without any preexisting connection to the community.

Each person who arrives in the community has the potential to seed multiple generations of members.

When we look at the other colors in this version of the bar graph, we see why this is important. Orange are children of earlier members who grew up and joined. Turquoise are people who joined after marrying children who grew up in the community. And so on. When the purple part of the graph shrinks – when new people fail to move to Homestead and put down roots there – the community loses out at that moment and in the future.

3. Synagogue members by place of residence


Now the graph is color-coded to show where a synagogue member was living in a given year. Not all synagogue members lived in Homestead. Blue means the member lived in Homestead, and Homestead's synagogue was likely their main religious community. Blue bodes well for that year and beyond.

Red, however, means the member lived nearby in Pittsburgh, and the other colors are places further afield. These are what I call “legacy” members – whether retirees or grown children – who retained their loyalty to their family congregation, but who lived their daily lives in probably a larger Jewish community with many more Jewish options. These members did not beget more members. Their children knew their families were from Homestead, but they did not affiliate with the Homestead synagogue. They invested in the community in which they lived.

If you look closely, you’ll see that in 1950 the number of members residing in Homestead dipped below 50% for the first time and continued to drop from there. The number of legacy members came to dominate the overall membership.

With this graph and the previous one, we see that even before the community hits its peak, the trends that would be its undoing were in place. New Jewish families were not moving to Homestead, and existing Jewish Homestead families were not staying.

Irwin Gross: 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.

AP: What made some people stay here, versus the ones who moved and just came back to take care of their businesses?

Florence Stahlberg Hiedovitz: I think some had family here, and wanted to stay with their family. And others looked toward the future and knew that it would never be, that it had peaked, and for their children and grandchildren they wanted a more Jewish environment such that Squirrel Hill or East End offered them.

AP: So it was just these other little, whatever these other little ties were that had them stay or go.

FH: Well, it was very personal. It depended on their family essentially, if their property was all purchased, if their business was gone, and if it's a situation – well, Harold's father, for example, he had a business, and he had property, and it was gone (TAH: as a result of the 1941 steel mill expansion). Well, there was no reason for them to stay here in Homestead.

Early migration to Homestead Park

Starting in the late 1920s, Jews began to settle in Homestead Park, a neighborhood two miles from Homestead's synagogue that dated back to the early 1900s. Considered a more pleasant, residential suburb and easily accessible by street car, Homestead Park continued to attract Jewish residents through the 30s and 40s. By the 1950s, half of the Homestead District's Jewish residents were in Homestead Park.

As we trace the migration of Homestead's Jews to Homestead Park, we are also seeing the effects of changing religious observance. Traditionally observant Jews will only walk to synagogue on the Sabbath or holidays. Homestead Park's Jewish families, headed by younger people, drove to synagogue. These oral histories, connected to families whose kids grew up in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, give some context:

AP: The shul was too far for you to walk to right? Generally speaking?

Irwin Gross: Generally speaking it was. But in the 40s, there were some people, including the Weinbergers, who would walk down and would walk back. But eventually they started to drive.

AP: So, on the holiday, the major holidays, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, were there, in most of the time when you were involved, were there people who were driving to shul?

IG: People who lived out in the Park almost always drove to the synagogue. People who lived in Homestead or Munhall, close to the synagogue, would walk. Like we had a rabbi who decided he was not going to live in Homestead, he was going to live in Homestead Park, and he was told, “You know it’s a long walk, and I’m sure you wouldn’t want to walk.” “Oh,” he says, “No problem, no problem.” But there were times where he didn’t show up especially in bad weather because he didn’t walk, he didn’t drive.

AP: So for example the High Holidays, when you were going to Shul, did [your family] walk from Homestead Park?

Ruth Stein Halle: No, we rode. We drove, we drove. As far as that part of it, the religious part of it, we drove and drove back home again, but, no, but we did not walk.

The dynamic map of where Homestead's Jewish residents lived 1890-1945 makes it easy to visualize when and how the traditional observance of only walking to synagogue faded as Jews spread beyond the Ward in Lower Homestead.

Homestead's Jewish households in 1945, color-coded by synagogue membership

The static image above, color-coded by synagogue membership, shows where Jewish families in 1945 in relation to the synagogue (indicated by the star). Note how many synagogue members (in blue) lived in Homestead Park (circled in orange).

Further research is underway to trace Homestead's families beyond the artificial 1945 cut-off imposed by the city directories. This Google map shows where families who sent their kids to Homestead's Hebrew school in the 50s and 60s lived.

Members vs. resident non-members of the Homestead Hebrew Congregation

This bar graph connects synagogue membership data with census data to suggest what percentage of Homestead's Jewish residents who could have been member of the town's synagogue were. There are plenty of issues with the data in this graph, from the significant undercount in the 1900 census, to difficulties in defining who is even a male eligible for synagogue membership, anyway, so this data is merely directional best. (The gray numbers indicate what percentage of Homestead's residents were Jewish.)

Bar graph showing members vs. resident non-members of the Homestead Hebrew Congregation

This graph shines light on a perennial problem in the synagogue. A person was not required to join the synagogue to make use of it, but without a sufficient dues base, the synagogue could not sustain its activities. In October 1923, for example, the synagogue appointed a committee “to work out ways and means to make outsiders pay for benefits derived from the Congregation.” Again in summer 1939, under the membership committee, a “list of prospective members [was] prepared [and a] campaign conducted to increase membership.” At that time the committee found “78 Jews in Homestead who are not members of the Congregation.” The meeting minutes noted that “efforts are being made to interview prospects,” but as earlier graphs showed, there doesn't appear to have been much success in recruiting them.

Further research is underway to identify how many of the non-members attended Homestead's synagogue or attended synagogue elsewhere.

Proximity of the Jewish community to events of the 1892 labor dispute

By mapping where the Jewish community lived in Homestead at the time of the famous 1892 labor dispute, I have revealed a surprising dimension to some of the most famous images from that historic summer.

Map showing the Jews of Homestead in proximity to the headquarters of the strikers

HQ indicates the Bost Building, which was the headquarters of the union during the strike. It was also where the many visiting journalists worked. (Today this building is the visitors' center for the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.)

The hill across the street (not shown in the map) is where the militia encamped for four months while the town was under martial law. (Today the Carnegie Library of Homestead occupies this hill.) This famous photograph captures the scene:

Famous photo of militia entering Homestead, showing the local Jewish stores

And this widely-circulated drawing shows the headquarters' building (note the flag and telegraph wires) with the militia milling about on the street (Harper’s Weekly, July 16, 1892). Is that Isadore Grossman in front of his store?

Isadore Grossman in front of his store?

From 1892 ‘til now, the people who studied this labor dispute have seen these images and not realized everything that these images represent. Jews were present at the time of the strike and located proximate to key events. They did not work in the mill at the time of the dispute, but they were affected secondarily as residents of a town under martial law and as peddlers and shopkeepers selling on credit to a town full of out-of-work men.

(For more information: Full, interactive map of the community here, a short video laying out the events of the strike on the map, and more reflections on the relationship of Homestead's Jewish community to the labor dispute here.)

Demolition of Lower Homestead in 1941 to expand the steel mill

Until 1941, the area of Homestead between the train tracks and the river was a crowded, diverse neighborhood called the "Ward." It spanned a mile of riverfront and stretched back a quarter-mile from the water. Derided as a slum (it was entirely red-lined), it certainly was economically depressed, with objectively sub-standard living conditions, but its residents remembered it warmly. In the summer of 1941, the federal government announced its plan to expand Homestead's existing steel mill by razing the Ward. The steel mill and the federal government worked in tandem to buy up all the property of the Ward. Half of Homestead's population lost their homes by the end of the year. (To learn more about this event, watch my talk, The Destruction of the Ward: 80 Years Later.)

By 1941, though, Homestead's Jewish population had dropped from its peak in the late 1920s and migrated away from its older center below the tracks. To what degree did the demolition of the Ward affect Homestead's Jewish community?

Animated map of the Ward, 1890-1945

As you can see in this animated map of Homestead's Jewish population, during the 1930s the number of Jewish families between the train tracks (purple line) and the river dropped significantly. (Or explore the interactive map yourself.)

Of the 1,566 families displaced, the map shows that 26 of them—represented in 22 households—were Jewish (1.7%). Jews were equally numerous in the Ward as they were in Homestead's nicer sections.

The displaced Jewish households, like many of the Ward's residents, had been there for some time. More than half of these households had been in Homestead for 25 years; three dated back to the 19th century. These were families with deep, long-standing ties to the town. Half found new homes elsewhere in Homestead.

In other ways, the Jewish households differed from their neighbors. In the Ward, 25% of all heads of household owned their homes, but that number rose to 64% in the Jewish community. Meanwhile, only a few Jewish Ward residents were millworkers, while 75% of the Ward's displaced families contained defense workers. The main benefit of the expansion—more mill jobs with longer hours and more security—thus did not help the Jewish community. Considering that the Ward's homeowners had a more tangible loss than its renters, and that new homes built to ease the housing shortage were slated only for defense workers, the Jewish households of the Ward experienced the disruption without the same ameliorating factors. Although Homestead's Chamber of Commerce believed the mill expansion would be good for the local economy, this opportunity did not benefit the merchants of the Ward, whose businesses—mostly mom-and-pop stores—were destroyed. 59% of the Ward's Jewish households lost their businesses along with their homes. While in typical times owning a home and a business might appear as markers of stability, under the unusual circumstances in Homestead 1941, the Jewish families were hit doubly hard. (Koncerak, 52, 56; Miner & Roberts, 6)

Harold Newman: My dad married my mother, and they came to Homestead and opened up a business on Fourth Avenue below the tracks, in Homestead.

AP: What kind of business did they open?

HN: Like a mill store, a men’s store.

AP: Oh, like that sold working men’s clothes.

HN: Right clothes, and cigarettes, tobacco and all that other stuff that the mill workers normally used...
My mother worked very hard down there. My dad worked hard...
If I was home I watched the store. You know, because don’t forget, the store was in front, the living room was right behind it with a TV, and we had a bell on the door so when the bell rang we used to take turns to wait on the customers...
We knew just about everybody that came in. We knew all the customers, all the people living there, and don’t forget [my parents] spoke their language, that made a big difference...
I had a funny incident on Pesach, at one of the seders, we didn’t close for Pesach, but for the seder, cause we used to stay open til eleven o’clock at night, you know. And right when Elijah was supposed to come in, somebody’s knocking on the door, they needed milk, from the back door. It was funny.

The mill expansion disproportionately hit Homestead's Jewish community in a third way—the loss of rental income. In the Jewish community, real estate investment was a common strategy to augment the uncertain income of their small businesses. No one ever cries for landlords, and the record suggests that few of the Ward's landlords maintained their properties adequately, but in the Jewish community many of those who relied on rental income were widows and men too old to work.

None of this analysis is meant to undermine the uncertainty faced by the majority of the Ward's families, who lost their homes with no compensation and little assistance. I intend only to add to the nature of the sacrifices documented in the existing literature, which focuses mainly on the experiences of steel workers. When the government and the steel mill claimed Lower Homestead, they wiped out the progress many families—both Jewish and non-Jewish, and especially headed by first-generation and older adults—had made in building individual and generational wealth.

B. Hepps property sales to steel co.

Real estate index documenting the property my great-grandparents were forced to sell, which included a parcel they bought in the 1890s when my great-grandfather worked as a teamster and another where he built the family home in 1906.

Beyond the individual economic impact, did the loss of the Ward affect the town's synagogue? From the map and bar graphs above, we can see clearly that very few member-households were in the Ward in 1941, only 13 of 152. Two left the synagogue during this time period, but one joined.

Synagogue members in 1941

Jewish families that belonged (blue) and did not belong (white) to Homestead's synagogue. The area above the orange line was the Ward.

Perhaps there was a longer-tail effect from the children who finished growing up elsewhere? Or from the enduring loss of 50% of Homestead's homes? In light of the prevailing trends—most Jewish children of this period left Homestead when they grew up, and the country's increasingly middle-class Jewish community was shifting everywhere away from neighborhoods like the Ward—it's unlikely that the Ward's continuation would have bolstered the shul without major investment in the Ward itself. Rehabilitating such neighborhoods, however, was not trendy in an era of white flight and slum clearance. The mill expansion indeed brought prosperity to what remained of Homestead, but the utter failure of a plan in the 1950s to modernize Homestead's business district cautions against imagining any miracles that might have revitalized Lower Homestead had it not been demolished.

"An event from God"

This bit of research was inspired by this fascinating memory from one of the synagogue's oral histories:

Louis Averbach: I may have been around 14, 15 years old. And, I was still living in Munhall. At that time, when Rosh Hashanah came around, or Yom Kippur…this one particular year for some reason or other, a number of the elderly Jewish people died. Now, they’re all going to die eventually, some die today, tomorrow, next week, next month and so on, but in a comparatively short period of time, there was an unusual number of them that had died.

And now, the older Jewish people, who were somewhat superstitious, felt that there was something wrong. That there was some punishment from God. They actually believed it. And they went to see Rabbi Goldberg. Rabbi Goldberg was supposed to come up with some kind of a prayer.

What happened after that, I don’t know, but I do know that it was considered an event from God, that something had gone wrong cause so many of them had died in a comparatively short time. And they felt something had to be done about it.

Or whether there’s a prayer for it, I don’t know whether there was or not, I don’t know what happened. But, I do remember that situation very well.

This anecdote captivated me from the first. There are very few stories like it that capture the way Jewish religion and culture operated in Homestead before people Americanized. I long wondered whether this story actually happened as Louis recollected it nearly seven decades later.

Based on Louis' guess that he was 14 or 15, these events would have taken place in the 1928-1930 timeframe. However, Rabbi Goldberg served from January 1925-September 1927. This difference feels trivial, though, and Louis' memory of it having been Rabbi Goldberg (vs. another rabbi in a period when there had been a lot of turnover) feels more secure.

But how to identify who were the "elderly Jewish people" dying in droves? I decided to graph all the burials in the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery of people older than 50 to see if any trends appeared. Burials in the synagogue cemetery are not the same as all Jewish deaths in Homestead (some Homestead Jews were not connected to the shul), nor all deaths of synagogue members (some of whom were buried in other cemeteries), plus sometimes non-residents and even non-members were buried in the cemetery—but burials had the advantage of being the easiest set of data for me to pull. I hoped it would show a trend so I wouldn't have to put in too much more effort.

Annual burials in Homestead Hebrew Cemetery of people older than 50, 1910-1940

Annual burials in Homestead Hebrew Cemetery of people older than 50, 1910-1940

As you can see, burials of older people were elevated for all three years of Rabbi Goldberg's service. The annual numbers matched the previous peak in 1918, when the Spanish flu hit, but was this sustained increase enough to cause a panic? After all, Homestead's Jewish population had grown significantly in the early 1920s.

And then it occurred to me: I wasn't graphing the data in a way that reflected how these older Jewish people would have perceived the situation! I needed to switch from using the secular year (January to December) to the Jewish year (roughly mid-September to mid-September).

Burials in Homestead Hebrew Cemetery of people older than 50 by Jewish year, 5670-5700

Burials in Homestead Hebrew Cemetery of people older than 50 by Jewish year, 5670-5700

Now you can see that there is a sharp spike in 5686 (Sep. 1925-Sep. 1926)! The story checks out. The previous year saw 3 deaths total, but in 5686 there were that many deaths in the first month alone.

The causes of death were mostly things old people died of in the 1920s: pneumonia, cancer, heart issues. Some of the people took ill and died within days; others had been sick for months or years. But there were a few particularly tragic deaths that might have especially shaken the community.

The first death of 5686 took place on Rosh Hashana (as in, the Jewish New Year): Joshua Lazar, 59, was hit by a train as he headed to synagogue for the concluding service of the holiday.

Diagram of Joshua Lazar's accident, presented at the coroner's inquest

Diagram of Joshua Lazar's accident, presented at the coroner's inquest (note that 5 railroad tracks ran straight through a densely populated residential area)

Lazar's death was especially upsetting as he had only just arrived in the U.S. in January after years of effort by his son and other family members in Homestead. He had been a refugee since 1919 when a ferocious pogrom destroyed his entire town and murdered most of his neighbors.

Seven months later, George Perlman, 60, who worked at Mesta Machine, was struck by a locomotive in the mill yard.

The Messenger, April 22, 1926

Full-page headline from The Messenger, April 22, 1926

Two months after that, Harry Markle, 50, went into shock after his tonsils were removed.

Was this spike in deaths an event from God? At the beginning of the prior Jewish year, Rabbi Widom, the predecessor to Rabbi Goldberg, took his own life, possibly due to his despair at the termination of his employment at the synagogue. A year later, a man was hit by a train on Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgement (another name for Rosh Hashana), starting off a year of unprecedented loss for the community. I can certainly understand why people who believed that prayer could avert the severe decree would approach their rabbi at the next season of atonement to ask him what they needed to do.