The Squirrel Hill Project series took an interactive turn Sunday, Dec. 2, when visitors filled the Thomas and Katherine Detre Library and Archives at the Heinz History Center, not only to hear lectures about Pittsburgh Jewish history, but to touch and see the history themselves.
This latest event in the series, called “Pittsburgh Jewish History Interactive Workshop at the Archives,” run by Pitt’s Jewish Studies Program and the Rauh Jewish Archives, featured two speakers, exhibits from the community, research by Pitt undergraduates, and exhibits from the archives itself.
But the most compelling features of the event were the documents and artifacts that individuals brought with them from their own homes and organizations for an adult version of show and tell.
The Squirrel Hill Project is a yearlong series of public programs and academic projects run by the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh that examines the history of the Pittsburgh area Jewish community in general and of Squirrel Hill in particular.
Susan Melnick, an archivist at the Rauh Jewish Archives, praised the event for involving the community in its own history. She demonstrated how learning about Jewish Pittsburgh’s past can be easily done using Rauh resources online.
Starting with a search for Congregation Beth Shalom — the oldest congregation in Squirrel Hill — Melnick quickly traced a path to the arrival of Jews in Squirrel Hill and the development of the infrastructure of its Jewish Community.
While the Rauh is a partner on the Squirrel Hill Project, it took the lead on this event, according to Melnick.
“It’s wonderful when the materials are useful; we make them accessible,” she said. “Programs like this acquaint people with the resources that we have here. We collect and preserve resources, that is our mission.”
None of the documents the Rauh houses is published, so it depends on donations for its collection.
“If they have materials, people might think of donating them,” Melnick said. “That way that community can learn from them and they will be preserved.”
David Grinnell, another speaker and the reference and access archivist at the University Library System at Pitt, said his facility also houses information on the Pittsburgh Jewish community. He specifically noted the correspondence of rabbis and the Romanian Jewish society at Tree of Life and the membership lists from Shaare Torah.
Grinnell also stressed the importance of new and interesting research projects, especially among young people.
“Archives are primarily about collecting materials for a given community,” he said. “It’s very important to connect to collections and to help people use the collections. They don’t do any good just sitting in the archives.”
Attendees fanned out to see exhibits on display after Melnick and Grinnell spoke. Among those exhibits were research presentations by undergraduate students at Pitt. They were part of the class “Jews and the City,” which is taught by Rachel Kranson.
Kranson’s students researched several topics from the emergence of Jewish Greek life at universities in Pittsburgh to the role that chess played in Jewish Pittsburgh to the impact of the Jewish Criterion on the Steel Strike of 1919.
Efraim Adler, a junior majoring in political science, did his research on the role kashrut (ritual dietary laws) played in the development of the Squirrel Hill Jewish community at the turn of the 20th century.
At that time, there were two separate Jewish communities in Pittsburgh — the established and middle class German Jews of Allegheny and the poor and newly arrived Eastern European Jews of the Hill District. The Jews on the Hill were Orthodox but could not afford to build the necessary infrastructure to sustain their community.
The Jews of Allegheny — now the North Side — came to their aid, enabling the establishment of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, even amid tension over their difference in religious observance.
In addition to exhibits featuring academic research, individuals also brought in their own artifacts from their attics, libraries and basements.
Adam Reinherz brought in a large board that neatly and comprehensively featured the history of Congregation Poale Zedeck. It had photos of the original constitution, written in Hungarian, photos of hand-drawn plans for the current building at the intersection of Phillips and Shady avenues and a timeline tracing the history of the congregation from its founding in 1881 to the present.
Reinherz, who is responsible for preserving the oral history of the congregation, said he took the job after noticing the stories that older members of the congregation were passing around; he wanted to preserve them.
But many artifacts on display were from the Rauh — the host for the workshop. They included maps of Squirrel Hill from 1927 and old photos of neighborhood landmarks, such as a 1931 photo of Taylor Allderdice High School.
Also featured were materials from Squirrel Hill’s current and past synagogues. There was a booklet from an event at Tree of Life Congregation from 1934 in commemoration of its 70th year of existence and a program from the 1949 dedication of Temple Sinai.
Adam Shear, director of the Jewish Studies Program at Pitt, said that the workshop at the Heinz History Center was an experiment.
“A lot of the [Squirrel Hill] series is made of lectures by dignified scholars, both local and not local,” he said. “Lectures are only interactive to a point. This is a place where people can bring their artifacts and share them with the community and with the experts on hand.
“People usually learn through lectures or books,” Shear added. This is about getting to see the raw materials that historians use to do their work.”
(Sam Lapin can be reached at email@example.com.)