Touching the past
Growing up outside Philadelphia, where her mother was raised, Tammy Hepps got to spend a lot of time getting to know that side of her family because much of the clan still lived in the area.
Her father’s family, however, was another story. And that story, she found, would take some work to tell.
Michael Hepps, Tammy’s dad, grew up in Homestead, left for college in the 1950s and never returned. But he took with him tales of his colorful extended family in Homestead, the Jewish community there and the Homestead Hebrew Congregation, which, he claimed, was founded by his grandfather, Bernhardt Hepps.
“The stories my father told were like a mythology; my father’s religious grandfather was like a Zeus figure from above,” said Hepps, who left her current home in New York City this past July to begin a year-long research project in Pittsburgh, unearthing the history of not only the Hepps family, but also the larger Jewish community of Homestead.
Because her father was not particularly religious, it was difficult for Hepps as a child to process the stories he told about her devout great-grandfather, she said.
“There were these stories about one of my father’s grandfathers that built a shul and studied Talmud; it was just hard to believe these stories were true,” said Hepps, a computer scientist who has worked for The New York Times and NBC in digital media but who now concentrates her efforts full time managing her own genealogy websites.
Her curiosity about her dad’s stories of Jewish Homestead was piqued at the age of 12 when serendipity connected her family with a distant and previously
unknown cousin in Texas, Frances Fleshin, who published a book about the Hepps family history in 1991. That book, Hepps said, changed her life.
“It basically told me that my father’s crazy stories were true,” she said. “I was descended from a great-grandfather who devoted himself to building a synagogue and the Jewish community in Homestead. This was just a few months before my bat mitzvah, and it informed and heightened all my emotions around that day.”
Up until that time, the only connection Hepps had to her great-grandfather was his antique sword, which she treasured, she said. But now she had a tangible yearning to more deeply connect with her family’s past and with her roots seven miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh.
In 2007, Hepps began doing serious research into the history of her family through genealogy websites and started nudging her father to accompany her on a visit to Homestead, as she had never before been there. In 2010, the two finally made the trip home.
While in the area, they reconnected with some third cousins, who confirmed for Hepps many of her father’s stories, including that of a cousin who made his fortune by inventing soybean oil and another who was president of the University of Fiji.
The Heppses also paid a visit to the site of the former synagogue, which has housed a church — the Community of the Crucified One — since the congregation sold its building in 1993.
On the final day of their three-day stay in Pittsburgh, Hepps got in touch with Susan Melnick, archivist of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center, to inquire about any Jewish records from Homestead.
Hepps was in luck.
The Homestead Hebrew Congregation was organized in 1894 as an Orthodox synagogue serving what was then a small Jewish community there. The synagogue served as the center of the community’s religious and social activities until the early 1950s, when it began to see its membership decline as congregants moved to the suburbs and other communities. The congregation eventually disbanded in 1992.
Before shuttering their shul, however, the members of the Homestead Hebrew Congregation had the prescience to preserve all its historical records and artifacts. Through a project headed up by Bob and Clarice Katz, the congregation’s artifacts were transferred to Congregation Beth Shalom, and its written and oral records — including interviews with members of the congregation — were transferred to the Rauh Jewish Archives.
“Susan Melnick had 16 boxes of records,” Hepps said, adding that her great-grandfather’s name appeared on the first page of the first book she opened, with records dating from 1901 to 1902. She found ledgers and deeds to the building sporting his signature and articles from The Jewish Criterion in which he was mentioned.
When she got in the car with her father to return east, Hepps had “an overwhelming feeling that I was heading in the wrong direction,” she said. “That’s when I knew that sometime in my life, I would live with all these records.”
Last summer, she made the commitment to do just that, leaving her life in New York.
In the short time she has been in Pittsburgh, truly living among the records, she has done a staggering amount of work. She is posting her research, findings and photos about the history of Jewish Homestead on her website: homesteadhebrews.com.
“It’s astounding what she’s doing,” said Melnick. “People come here all the time to do research. But I don’t know anybody else who’s moved here to do research on a specific topic at the Rauh Jewish Archives.”
Hepps has also been busy making connections in the Jewish community and conducting interviews to flesh out the story she is working to tell, Melnick said.
In fact, earlier this week, Bob Katz had arranged for Hepps to meet with a previously unknown distant cousin in the area, he said.
“I think it’s quite commendable what she’s doing,” Katz added.
When the Homestead Hebrew Congregation was closing in 1992, its community took a “very proactive approach” in preserving its history, according to Melnick.
“They gave us their records, they had professional photos taken of their building, and they took oral histories and recorded them.”
When congregations in the region close, Melnick said, they typically take various steps in preserving their histories. “But Homestead was the most comprehensive,” she noted.
Melnick said she is seeking funding to implement similar projects with other synagogues in the region that are in the process of closing, modeled on the Homestead project.
Melnick also hopes to expand on that model by offering individuals the opportunity to donate family records and photos to the Rauh Archives as well.
“Those materials are very much at risk,” Melnick said, noting that when people move or die, their records and photos often get thrown away; Melnick would like to see them preserved for future generations.
Hepps’ current research underscores the importance of preserving the histories of congregations as well as families, according to Melnick.
“I could not have dreamed up a better demonstration of why we need to do this,” Melnick said.
As for Hepps, the foresight of those members of the Homestead Hebrew Congregation who preserved its records has been invaluable.
“I couldn’t be doing any of this without what they did,” she said. “I just felt like they put it here for someone like me to find.”
“I’m only scratching the surface at this point,” she continued. “The more I dig in, the more interesting it is. I’m the luckiest person in the world that I get to do this.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.