If there is truth to the wisdom of Shakespeare, that “what’s past is prologue,” Congregation Beth Shalom’s first 100 years have set the stage for a profound second act.
Beth Shalom’s story began in September 1917 when 35 families got together for prayer in a room above the Orpheum Theater at the corner of Forbes Street and Murray Avenue.
Anticipating the imminent migration of Jews from the Hill District to Squirrel Hill, those families soon sought to form a congregation and, just two years later, adopted the name “Beth Shalom.”
On Yom Kippur, 1919, $15,000 was pledged to build a synagogue, and the building that still stands on the corner of Shady Avenue and Beacon Street broke ground on March 18, 1922.
The congregation that has served as a spiritual home for generations of Pittsburgh families began commemorating its centennial year with a luncheon last April, and the celebration will conclude with a gala dinner on Saturday, Nov. 11, at the Pittsburgh Marriott City Center.
“I framed my High Holiday sermons as past, present and future, because at this particular time it’s really important for us to remember the past, but also to look forward,” said Rabbi Seth Adelson, who is in his third year of serving as the Conservative congregation’s spiritual leader. “We — the Jews — have never only looked backward; we’ve always looked forward as well. The past of this congregation is 100 years of wonderful successes. The fact that we’re still here is a testament to the strength of this congregation.”
Looking toward the future, Adelson continued: “We have to consider where we are as Jews now and where we are going and how we will make this congregation more sustainable and also better suited to the Jews of the 21st century and those that come after.”
Beth Shalom has provided the community with services and Jewish activities since its founding. Its Sisterhood Auxiliary was formed in November 1917, and in February 1919, a Hebrew School for children was launched, with classes held at the Colfax School. In 1925, the Men’s Club was organized and the congregation purchased cemetery grounds in Shaler Township.
The congregation continued to grow and in 1930 expanded its building, adding a new sanctuary. By 1970, the congregation was so large that it required another expansion, which included a new sanctuary, a chapel, libraries, the Samuel and Minnie Hyman Ballroom, the Shirley and Alvin Weinberg Reception Pavilion and a renovated kitchen.
After a fire caused extensive damage in 1996, the congregation remodeled and expanded the synagogue again, with the dedication of the Faye Rubenstein Weiss Sanctuary, the addition of the Halpern Center for Education Preschool wing, the dedication of the Milton and Sarita Eisner Commons, the Homestead Hebrew Chapel and the Jack and Esther Palkovitz Grand Lobby.
Spaces were also created for youth in the Jeannette B. and Samuel T. Shear Youth Center, the Rice Auditorium, the Stephen M. Plung Preschool Lobby and the Wagner/Klein Preschool Playground.
Gloria Ebling-Gottlieb, 91, has been a member of Beth Shalom for 86 years, beginning with her family’s move from the Hill District to Squirrel Hill in 1931. She attended the congregation’s religious school and celebrated “every life cycle event there,” she said, including two of her own weddings.
Beth Shalom was like a second home for Ebling-Gottlieb, who spent every Friday after school at Junior Congregation, participated in the shul’s Girl Scout Troop and even took dance lessons there — from instructor Gene Kelly, who taught in the synagogue’s basement during the Depression.
The congregation has seen many changes throughout its storied past and continues to evolve, noted Rabbi Stephen Steindel, who served as the spiritual leader of the congregation from 1986-2009. During that time, Steindel shepherded in “several major changes, including the full and equal participation of women in our services and the welcoming of little children into the main sanctuary — even noisy ones,” he said.
“It has been interesting to watch the congregation move into smaller, more intimate settings for worship and family rituals. The transition promotes more participation for everyone but the change is remarkable,” he continued.
Debby Firestone, president of the congregation, has been a Beth Shalom member for more than 40 years. She fondly remembers a chavurah for young families in the late 1980s and early 1990s, an active junior congregation and “Cantor [Moshe] Taube — sitting in the main sanctuary, listening to his voice echoing through in a very spiritual way.”
Taube became cantor at Beth Shalom in 1965 and served the congregation for more than 40 years.
“My work was to improve the musical services of the congregation to an unmatched level, and I did, thank God, succeed,” he said.
Taube recalled a “dedicated men’s choir to sing with me and which did its best to present the congregation with a service that was embraced and accepted by many other congregations that took their example from us,” he said. “Our services were renowned all over the world.”
Eighty-five percent of the compositions for choir and cantor “were my own,” Taube said. “People in the congregation were familiar with these melodies and were singing along with great fervor.”
The congregation has shifted in recent years, though, to a model based more on lay participation than cantorial direction, which is working well for a new generation of Jews, according to Rob Menes, executive director of Beth Shalom.
“In the last couple of years, we have gained more and more young families who are looking for different types of programming in the services and the courses we have to offer,” he said. “The services needed to be more participatory, and they’ve changed quite a bit. We have recognized the abilities of our congregants, and virtually every service is lay-led.”
There is also an increase in the participation of the congregation’s youth in the services, according to Menes, and instrumentation on Friday nights has been introduced as well.
Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, director of youth tefillah, “is bringing his enthusiasm to young families, and we’re invigorating our older members, too,” Firestone said. Markiz is also heading the new Derekh program, which aims to create a center for expanding Jewish experiences through learning, acts of kindness, mindfulness, culture and Israel.
“There is a warm feeling here,” Firestone said. “It used to be a hard place to break into, but it’s changed. People are more welcoming. It’s a happy place to be.”
While membership at Beth Shalom hovers around 600 families, down from its peak of 1,300 families just a couple decades ago, it is now on the upswing, according to Menes.
That’s good news for the congregation, which Menes admits is housed in a building that was built for a much larger membership.
The synagogue is nonetheless “being used to capacity,” Menes said. The Reconstructionist Congregation Dor Hadash will soon be moving into the building, as have various other groups, including La Escuelita Arcoiris, a Spanish preschool, and the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.
Bernice Meyers and Marlene Silverman, who are heading the centennial celebration, each have been members of Beth Shalom for more than 50 years. They have a long history of working together to chair congregational events.
“Beth Shalom has been central in our lives,” Meyers said, adding that in addition to the congregation serving as a source of community, it has also provided opportunities for personal growth.
Meyers and Silverman recalled celebrating their 60th birthdays together at the synagogue by chanting the haftorah together.
“It was quite an experience for both of us and quite a sense of accomplishment,” said Meyers, who was raised in Beaver Falls and had not had a bat mitzvah.
The Nov. 11 gala will be “a festive celebration, with a lot of dancing and minimal speeches,” Silverman said, and concludes seven months of centennial activities, which included the luncheon in April, a picnic and a scholar-in-residence weekend.
Beth Shalom, heading into its second hundred years, will continue to evolve, said Adelson.
“We have to reconsider what the model of this synagogue is, and we have to make sure that we are focused on connecting Jews with the tradition, connecting Jews with meaning,” the rabbi said. “We are making sure that what we do is not just coming here to daven, but to learn about our tradition, making sure this is a venue in which people are welcome, that we are inclusive, that we are a place where everyone feels comfortable to join us, making sure that, of course, we stand for Jewish tradition, but that we also stand for change in Jewish tradition that comports with who we are today.
“I have been working hard to try to reorient the synagogue to be not just a place where people pray, but where people learn. To make it as much of a bet midrash — a classical Jewish study hall — as a bet tefillah, a house of prayer,” he said. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at