Rabbi Baruch Poupko’s legacy goes beyond Pittsburgh, and the breadth of his work forever changed the lives of many Jews.
Poupko, who served as rabbi and then senior rabbi at Shaare Torah Congregation until 2004, died Wednesday, April 14, in Seattle, where he lived for several years. He was 92.
Born in Velizh, Russia, Poupko was the son of the late Rabbi Eliezer and Pesha Poupko. The family included eight children, including Poupko’s twin sister.
Poupko described life in Russia in a 1976 recording made by the National Council of Jewish Women’s Oral History Project, which is now archived by the University of Pittsburgh available online.
Stalin, Poupko said, was a “brutal despot” who wanted to wipe out any vestige of the religion and language of any minority. The future rabbi was forced to attend school on the Sabbath and holidays or his parents would have been arrested.
“We had to go to the synagogue secretly,” Poupko said.
Eliezer Poupko, who was the chief rabbi in the community, was also an activist who sent letters describing conditions for Jews to rabbinic leaders in the United States and England. Soviet authorities intercepted the letters, arrested the elder Poupko and convicted him following a trial in 1930. Although he was sentenced to two years of hard labor in Siberia, through the help of the Joint Distribution Committee, his sentence was reduced to house arrest.
The family’s escape to Latvia was orchestrated by Poupko’s mother, who planned the escape by way of a rowboat on the Dvina River in the middle of the night. The JDC secured their passports, and the family eventually made their way to Poland. In 1931, they came to the United States.
Poupko was ordained at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University in 1941, studied history at Columbia University and obtained his doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh in 1952.
He came to Pittsburgh in 1942, initially as a visiting rabbi at Shaare Torah, which was then in the Hill District, following the death of its rabbi of 45 years, Moshe Sivitz.
Poupko described Sivitz, in the oral history recordings, as “revered and venerated throughout the Jewish world,” adding that the challenge of replacing him was daunting.
“To me it was a frightening thing to step in the boots of such a personality. … Here, I could fashion something not the way it was handed to me, but how I would like to see it.” New generations, he said, have new challenges and new needs.
Poupko took on the challenge and made his mark in Pittsburgh and beyond.
According to Edie Naveh, director of the Holocaust Center of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, Poupko approached UJF leadership in the late 1970s to create a “living memorial” for Holocaust victims. The Holocaust Center was established in 1981, Naveh said, predating the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum by almost 13 years. For many years, Poupko remained active with the Holocaust Center’s commission and subcommittees.
Poupko never forgot the Jews in the Soviet Union who faced discrimination, and who frequently fended off starvation with care packages from the JDC. Poupko pioneered the Save Soviet Jewry campaign in Pittsburgh and sent letters to the rabbinate throughout the United States to enlist their support.
Making the campaign public, he said in the recording, would be the key to producing results.
“Everything which is done in the free world to arouse public opinion is of help. … If not for the programs, if not for the efforts of Jews in America and U.K. (United Kingdom), we would not have had so many thousands of Jews come out of Russia. The Soviet Union is very sensitive about public opinion. … When we do things that annoy them very much, it is occasionally productive.”
As a result of the Save Soviet Jewry campaign, he said, 32,000 Jews left the Soviet Union for Israel and 50,000 for the United States in 1973 alone.
Poupko felt lucky and privileged to have escaped from the Soviet Union, according to his granddaughter, Gilah Kletenik of New York. He led the first rabbinic delegation to the Soviet Union and traveled there a dozen times. The KGB always followed him, she said. He spoke in synagogues and campaigned the government for Jewish religious freedom or emigration.
Eventually, she said, 1.5 million Jews would resettle in the two countries.
From 1949 to 1999, Poupko was president of the Rabbinical Council of Pittsburgh and co-founded the Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh. He proved instrumental in bringing the streams of Judaism together, establishing the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association in the 1980s, according to Naveh.
Poupko also identified with the liberal progressives in politics but aside from voting, he was not active in politics and did not endorse candidates from the pulpit. When he voted, not even support of Israel could sway him.
“Although Nixon was a friend of Israel,” he said in the oral history recording, “because of my liberal tendencies, my conscience would not permit me to vote for a man like Nixon.”
Poupko sought to raise his children with the same values his parents instilled in him. Again, in the recording, he spoke of his mother’s insistence on education in the arts. Also, his parents did not believe being Jewish meant dressing too differently; Jews should conduct themselves like everyone else.
“I believe that identity is established from learning, from scholarship, through knowledge, through awareness,” he said. “I do not believe I have to look different from someone else when I walk in the street.”
For his children, exposure to intensive Jewish education and higher secular education was paramount, but Poupko never told them what to do with their lives, following in his father’s footsteps. He said his father told him he need not be a rabbi; he could be a shoemaker, but he must be sure to make the best shoes on the block.
Poupko was married to the late Gilda Twersky-Novoseller Poupko and is survived by his second wife, Miriam Bak Poupko, five children, 28 grandchildren and 41 great-grandchildren.
His funeral was held in Israel at the Eretz Hachaim Cemetery at Beit Shemesh.
(Angela Leibowicz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)