Over the past nine months, the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh has devoted a series of events to an exploration of Jewish life in Squirrel Hill.
The Squirrel Hill Project concluded with its eighth event last Wednesday evening, June 12, with a panel discussion at the Jewish Community Center titled “Past, Present, Future: Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh’s Jewish Community.”
Before a crowd of about 100 people that skewed quite heavily “past,” moderator Adam Shear, professor and director of Pitt’s Jewish Studies Program, posed a series of questions on Squirrel Hill as kind of an oddity — an urban Jewish community that didn’t see a mass suburban exodus in the years following World War II — and what has caused the neighborhood to remain so heavily Jewish.
Panelists Jeffrey Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh; Brian Schreiber, JCC president and CEO; and Rachel Kranson, professor of religious studies at Pitt, cordially bandied back and forth on the topic of Squirrel Hill’s place in the collective of American Jewish communities.
“I can’t think of another Jewish community in the country where a JCC was torn down and rebuilt,” said Schreiber, who began his career working with the Jewish community in his native Baltimore. “Unlike some other Jewish communities, we have not moved in a straight line. Baltimore’s Jews moved in one direction. Cleveland’s Jews have moved east. Pittsburgh’s Jews have moved north, east and south. That’s very unusual and it’s helped preserve our urban core.”
While nobody can quite agree on what, exactly constitutes Squirrel Hill — the official neighborhood boundaries, the 15217 ZIP code and the entirety of 14th Ward were all offered as possibilities — the center of Squirrel Hill is a widely agreed upon location.
“Forbes and Murray is the equalizer for the Jewish community,” Finkelstein said. “Pittsburgh’s Jewish community crosses socioeconomic boundaries like other Jewish communities don’t. I think a lot of us here in Pittsburgh take that for granted.”
Neither Schreiber nor Finkelstein hesitated in terming Squirrel Hill as being “unique” among all urban American Jewish neighborhoods.
“I can’t think of another urban-centered Jewish community like ours,” Finkelstein said.
While reluctant to call Squirrel Hill unique, Kranson cited the plethora of different factors as crucial to Squirrel Hill sustaining itself.
Among those factors, she cited the stability of the neighborhood’s schools, availability of good housing stock, lack of suburban sprawl in Pittsburgh, continued investment in Jewish institutions, and that Squirrel Hill was never red-lined or in the path of African-American migration.
“There’s no one factor that tells us why Squirrel Hill has evolved the way it has,” Kranson said. “The conclusion that I’ve come to is that Squirrel Hill represents something of a perfect storm — a wide array of factors that convinced Jews in other cities to move to the suburbs did not take place here.”
While the panelists didn’t devote much time to discussing Squirrel Hill’s future, all agreed that change is taking place.
“Outside of the observant community, I’m not sure what denominational Judaism is going to mean 25 or 30 years from now,” Schreiber said. “In New York City, a majority of Jews are post-denominational, and we’re headed there, too.”
“We might want to consider affiliationism to be a fad,” Kranson said. “[Denominations], the way we think about them, didn’t exist in their current form until the 1950s. Now we’re looking toward something different.”
While Finkelstein said the Federation continues to plan for the future, the current demographics of Squirrel Hill might be something of a mystery. The Federation hasn’t conducted a communal study of Squirrel Hill since 2002, and census data does not record any religious information.
“How should we change? I don’t know. But what got us here is not going to get us there,” Finkelstein said. “If we keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them, we’re going to go out of business.”
He said that the Federation is exploring the possibility of doing a communal study to re-examine Squirrel Hill, but for now, its cost is prohibitive.
“My plea — and I know that it’s expensive — would be to make sure that we get this data,” Kranson said. “It’s hard to make these kinds of decisions unless we have this data.”
(Matthew Wein can be reached at email@example.com.)