Jews see their past at former Hill District synagogue
About 40 people climbed into a charter bus Sunday waiting outside of New Light Congregation in Squirrel Hill to take a tour of historic Jewish Pittsburgh sites.
Rabbi Jonathan Perelman of New Light organized the event, co-sponsored by the Young People’s Synagogue, while historian Franklin Toker acted as the main tour guide.
But of all the sites Perelman and Toker planned to show his group this day, they knew one in particular would be special.
“I think the most significant part of the tour is to go inside what is now the Mount Zion Baptist Church, which was at one time Kether Torah,” said Perelman. “That was the largest synagogue in the Hill District.”
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture the Webster Avenue building as a synagogue built in 1920. A Star of David is still visible in the brickwork above the entrance and the current owners of the facility haven’t changed too much inside, either.
The group split in half for the tour, some going with Toker and some with Ginger Kinsel, Pastor Adam Kinsel’s wife.
The tour started in what Zion Hill Full Gospel Baptist Church uses as their sanctuary.
Kinsel pointed out that some of the room is still the same, including the windows. The consensus seemed to be that the current sanctuary was the same room the men used to use for their daily prayers.
The downstairs portion of the tour included a small social hall, kitchen and mikve (ritual bath). It was a somewhat surreal moment as people crowded around the mikve and thought about the building’s history and the people who used to pray there.
The upper levels of the building were in much worse condition. The church doesn’t need so much space and the repairs would be costly. Still, people climbed the creaky steps to visit the former sanctuary.
The dome ceiling had to be tarred over to stop the rain and snow leaking through, but a pigeon managed to sneak in. The floor was covered with rubble, presumably from the ceiling, which was missing large chunks. The Star of David painted in the center of the dome was still visible and a few benches remained — although no longer ideal for sitting.
The group appreciated the opportunity to tour the building; many commented that they’re happy it was still being used for prayer, as opposed to having been demolished or turned into a coffee shop.
Kinsel said she appreciated the visit. A native of the Hill District, she said she recognized the importance of such homecomings.
“I think that we need to go back to our heritage,” she said. “I think that we need to open up our doors. We were here at one time and we used to work together. We used to live together.”
The group also visited the new Beth Hamedrash Hagadol-Beth Jacob synagogue, Downtown. The Bes Almon Cemetery in Troy Hill and the North Side before returning to New Light.
Some participants praised the tour as a necessary way to keep Jewish Pittsburgh history alive.
“A lot of the history is oral and a lot of it is going to disappear,” said Moshe Marvit, 32, a history student at Carnegie Mellon University. “So attending these things is important to hear what places used to be like and what happened there.”
(Ilana Yergin can be reached at email@example.com.)