Bringing the past to life spotlights importance of Jewish community

Bringing the past to life spotlights importance of Jewish community

The “Jewish Life in Western Pennsylvania” event brought presenters and archivists together to weave a tale of the region’s Jewish history. (Photo provided by Bee Schindler)
The “Jewish Life in Western Pennsylvania” event brought presenters and archivists together to weave a tale of the region’s Jewish history. (Photo provided by Bee Schindler)

Generations of Jewish families in Pittsburgh have painstakingly saved their photos and wedding announcements; their son’s honor-roll report card and across-the-Atlantic passenger information for the thousands who made the voyage to Ellis Island. And as the years pass, the documents can get brittle and illegible.

The Nov. 23 “Jewish Life in Western Pennsylvania: Exploring the Archives” open house, presented by the Rauh Jewish Archives, the Rodef Shalom Congregation Archives and the University of Pittsburgh Jewish Studies Program, brought family documents to life thanks to a generous donor’s hopes to preserve the stories.

“My family has been very complicated,” donor Richard Rauh told the audience. “My father has been dead for 50 years, and my mother has been dead for 20 years, and I don’t know where that leaves me; I am just starting my life now.”

This is where the genealogical research comes in to play.

“They are gone,” Heinz History Center President Andrew Masich, who spoke at the Center to an audience of about 200, told Rauh, “but not forgotten, thanks to the archives.”

Rauh Jewish Archives began in 1989 following an endowment made in honor of Richard Rauh’s parents.

The archives will be housed at and is set to launch at a date to be determined. It will include more than 1,000 collections, which could range from a couple of papers to large reams of documents and audio.

“[The archivists were able to get] 2,000 documents scanned and digitized,” Masich said.

The searchable index will represent the “Jewish experience of Western Pennsylvania,” said Susan Melnick, archivist of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center.

The lights dimmed and a projector flashed the website on a large screen, as the archival consultant Eric Lidji presented “Generation to Generation: Family Stories Drawn from the Rauh Jewish Archives.” He said 165 families are highlighted on the site, including the Rauhs.

Solomon and Rosalia Rauh spent time in various cities before arriving in Pittsburgh, and their extended family would go on to found local institutions, such as the Pittsburgh Playhouse, and participate culturally as artists and actors. Lidji showed the group a photo of the family, which led to future generations, one hyperlink at a time. Sometimes a click would show a sister who married a brother of a famous Jewish business owner, and other times it revealed relationships between Jewish neighbors who opened mom-and-pop shops in the Hill District or downtown.

“Everyone talks about how Pittsburgh is a small place,” Lidji said. “And now, we have proof.”

In fact, the stories often boil down to first-generation Jews in America — Pittsburgh serving as a place to reignite their birth countries.

“If you look at Jewish history in Western Pennsylvania, you very quickly get into immigration history,” said Rodef Shalom’s archivist Martha Berg, who presented “Beyond the Family Tree.” She said that shuls carry long lists of members — deceased and active — who weave a tale for those interested in capturing their family’s history with a congregation: from mitzvahs to donations to roles and responsibilities. As an example, Berg pulled up Rauh’s history as longtime members of Rodef Shalom. She showed articles of Helen Sisenwain, Rauh’s mother, including school papers and notebooks with her handwritten notes in the margins.

Taking the archives further, David Grinnell, representing the Archives Service Center of the University of Pittsburgh, brought stories to the speakers with “National Council of Jewish Women Oral Histories: Voices from the Past,” his part of the Sunday lecture. The oral histories of some 500 locals focus on Jewish communities in Pittsburgh and were recorded between 1968 and 2001. The live website can be searched by viewing the names of those interviewed, the geographic location of where they lived and/or the subject of the interview.

A search, for example, of Squirrel Hill interviews leaves the user with a handful of names, one of whom is Gertrude Hoffman, whose three interviews took place in 1977. Developing a story on life for first-born Jewish Americans, the interviewer asks Hoffman — who was born and raised in New York City to Lithuanian parents and who later moved to Pittsburgh in the 1940s following her marriage — about her home life.

“Well, the home environment in my home was, I don’t know how I could really put it,” Hoffman speaks on the now digitized recording. “It was a very comfortable setting; it was not what you could call an intellectual home, but it was an open door, where whomever would visit would feel at ease.”

There’s a silent pause in the audio program.

“So,” the interviewer slowly says, “you had more fireside chats … than going out to concerts and stuff like that.”

“That’s right,” Hoffman said, “more around the table type of discussions on what was going on.”

At the break, the event’s coordinators guided the Heinz Center’s visitors to stations around the room, each with presenters who have done research of their own.

One such novice archivist, Renee Abrams, spoke to a small group about her experience of collecting the stories of Jewish people living in the East End — an area of the city that was once a bustling Jewish part of town.

“[There was a] very rich community in the East End,” Abrams, who is working on a film telling the tale of that part of town, said. “Your friends were the people in your neighborhood; we stayed in our wombs.” For Abrams, a resident of the predominantly Catholic area of Morningside (a three-sided area flanked by Highland Park and Stanton Heights), being Jewish was an anomaly.

“Being Jewish living in a Catholic community made me sensitive to Jewish life,” she said, highlighting her detailed involvement with her synagogue in the East End. Jewish people started in the Hill District, she said, and then moved to Oakland, Squirrel Hill and then the East End. She said that many around the neighborhoods didn’t have Pittsburgh roots, so it was crucial that they opened stores and created community.

Abrams said, “Not having a history here meant that you had to make one.”

Bee Schindler can be reached at