The story of the Pittsburgh School for Reform Judaism
Trip to the County Building provides education
Anytime I need inspiration, I stroll across downtown to the County Office Building on Ross Street. I climb the beige terrazzo steps to the mezzanine, haul one of the heavy charter books down from the shelf and spend an hour or so discovering old beginnings.
A charter is the foundational legal document for any organization. It is the moment when a group of people becomes a “corporation” in the eyes of the law, which makes these books an ongoing record of aspirations, hopes and promises in Allegheny County.
One day this past summer, while perusing the “P” section of the index, I got lost in a long list of corporations starting with “Pittsburgh.” It went on for page after page. Tucked in the middle of the list was a reference to “The Pittsburgh School for Reform Judaism,” chartered on Nov. 9, 1954. The school was unfamiliar to me, and so, as instructed by the index, I lugged Charter Book Volume 75 down from the shelf and turned to page 166.
One of the most useful factoids in any charter is the statement of purpose, where the incorporators explain their goals. The Pittsburgh School for Reform Judaism was founded for the “establishment and maintenance of a religious school offering without consideration or profit, training in the principles of Reform Judaism as a religious faith as distinguished from an ethnological concept, as well as the study of comparative religions, their philosophy and history, for the better understanding of Reform Judaism.” Another useful factoid is the list of incorporators. This charter gave five names: Edward G. Oppenheimer, Joel Spear Jr., James D. Haber, Foster S. Goldman and Eugene B. Schuster. Foster Goldman Jr. sits on the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives advisory committee. I asked him about the school. He told me that in the early 1950s, as a pre-teen at Rodef Shalom, he lost interest with his religious school classes. The study of Hebrew wasn’t meaningful to him, and the annual review of Jewish holidays seemed repetitive.
So one day he just left.
He was not a particularly rebellious child, and his indiscretion surprised his parents. They took his complaint seriously and responded by helping to found a new religious school. In an oral history conducted in 1984, mother and teacher Elizabeth Schuster confirmed aspects of this account. Her children also rankled at the religious school curriculum and wanted to study the broad, ethical aspects of Judaism rather than its cultural particulars. The school started small. Goldman Jr. was confirmed in a class of two.
“It looked like a wedding,” he told me.
Within a few years, though, the school had about 30 students, according to a headcount of a photograph printed in the Jewish Criterion in May 1955. Rejected by the organized Jewish community, the school was forced to meet in non-Jewish spaces: the University School on Howe Street, the East Liberty YMCA and the Shadyside Boys Club. Parents taught most classes. Several even attended a teachers’ training institute in Chicago in 1956. Out-of-town rabbis were hired for confirmations.
Goldman Jr. didn’t have any documentation of the school, but he recalled the names of his fellow students. (My favorite, by far, were the brothers “Herk” Newman and “Turk” Newman.) On his list was Ellen Lehman, who has been donating family papers to the Jewish archives for years. I asked her for documentation, and she produced 14 photos and a program documenting her confirmation at the Webster Hall Hotel on June 1, 1958. The program includes hymns, psalms, prayers, readings and a list of the speakers that day.
The surviving documentation of the Pittsburgh School for Reform Judaism starts in the fall of 1954 and ends in May 1960. The record of those six years is scant but surprisingly well rounded and diverse. It includes a governmental record, an archival document containing original liturgical writings, a folder of photographs, a file of newspaper clippings and an oral history — just enough information, from just enough sources, to understand the spirit of the endeavor and what it meant to those who endeavored it. PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Sen. John Heinz History Center. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-454-6406.