Education was always at the heart of the Hebrew Institute, but the building is now home to an organization whose subject matter is worlds away from the Judaic instruction that first took place in its halls. Today, the Hill District location houses the Allegheny County Health Department’s STD-HIV/AIDS Clinic.
Located at 1908 Wylie Avenue, the health center “offers free and confidential examinations and treatment to anyone 13 years and older, regardless of immigration status,” a press release from Ryan Scarpino, ACHD’s public health information officer, announced. “Patients are treated on a first come, first serve basis. No appointment or insurance is necessary.”
A subsequent release specified the conditions that are routinely tested at the center: “HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. Patients can receive treatment on site, but may also be offered additional testing, or referrals for medical care.”
For more than a century, the almost acre-sized space at 1908 Wylie Ave. has been a center for communal edification, noted Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. Finally opened in 1916, “the Hebrew Institute was an attempt to modernize and centralize traditional Jewish education in the Hill District,” he said.
Originally erected as a locale to “teach Hebrew, Jewish history, ethics and literature to immigrant children,” the place would have never been built without the efforts of Rabbi Aaron Mordechai Ashinsky and a 1913 challenge grant of $25,000 by Louis I. Aaron, according to Rauh materials.
It was “one of many projects started by Ashinsky in the early 20th century,” said Lidji.
Although the school remained on site for several decades, in 1943 it followed its population to the East End. At that time “a new building opened on Forbes and Denniston avenues in Squirrel Hill,” and although the Hebrew Institute ultimately closed in 1991, its former Squirrel Hill residence at 6401 Forbes Ave. houses the Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh Girls School and Preschool Campus.
Even if you’re born and bred here, you don’t know the whole story.
As the early to mid-20th Century brought a relocation of the Jewish community to other parts of the city, the period welcomed new life to the Hill District and its buildings. At one point, the Wylie Avenue property, which still bears the Hebrew inscription “beit sefer ivri” on its facade, harbored the K Boys Club before eventually becoming the Blakely Program Center, one of several structures on the Hill House Association’s campus, explained Lidji.
On February 14, 2018, ACHD held a ribbon cutting ceremony with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the health department, outside of the historic red brick building.
Transferring the Oakland based clinic to the Hill District allowed ACHD to operate within a scene that was “better suited to the services we provide, and was situated in a place that was accessible to residents who use the clinic,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.
“We’re delighted that we were able to make this move and provide this much-improved clinic space for our residents.”
“This new location will provide us with improved clinical and office space so that we can best serve all Allegheny County residents that need to utilize its services,” added Hacker.
Rachel Klipa, manager of Community Engagement for the Office of Public Art at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, found the story of occupant migration despite architectural permanence a fascinating window into this city’s past.
In 2016, Klipa had heard of a Hill District walking tour organized by Zack Block of Repair the World: Pittsburgh. Although she was ultimately unable to attend the 2016 iteration, Klipa participated in 2017 and “loved it,” she said.
So last weekend, after several months of planning, Klipa, through the Office of Public Art, offered the program again.
“The goal of the tour is to highlight the similarities in the historic experiences of the Jewish population and the African-American experiences in the Hill District,” said Lidji, who along with Terri Baltimore, director of community engagement at the Hill House Association, has led previous versions of the trip. “Those similarities extend to religious, educational, economic and cultural institutions — synagogues that became churches, community centers that served one population and then another.”
Along with visiting the one-time Hebrew Institute, participants observed other posts including the former Irene Kaufmann Settlement House and current Hill House Association main building at 1835 Center Ave., former Congregation Kether Torah and current Zion Hill Full Gospel Baptist Church at 2043 Webster Ave., as well as former Congregation Anshe Lebovitz and current Enon Baptist Church at 110 Erin St.
The tour allows participants to “celebrate shared stories of spaces [between] African Americans and Jewish Americans,” said Baltimore. “It’s a really nice way of breaking down barriers between black and white Pittsburgh.”
“The tour is unique in that it also connects history to the present by bringing people into a neighborhood that is alive and thriving today, while also being filled with some beautiful remnants of the past,” said Lidji.
“Even if you’re born and bred here,” said Klipa, “you don’t know the whole story.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.