Anytime the urge to procrastinate becomes overwhelming, I steal away to the Special Collections gallery of the Heinz History Center, two floors down from the archives. I nod to the wax figure of Mr. Rogers, and then I duck around the corner to marvel at the ark from the old Machsikei Hadas Congregation in East Liberty. I love its carved hands giving the Priestly Blessing, its twin illustrations of the Ten Commandments wearing a crown and its gold-painted Hebrew words proclaiming: Baruch Haba B’shem Hashem.
The other day I noticed something odd about this ark: A big chunk is missing from the top of one column. The cut is clean, rimmed with molding. It was removed on purpose.
Knowing a little bit about the acquisition of this ark, I suspected there might be an explanation in the archive. Machsikei Hadas was crucial to the development of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives. The congregation disbanded in 1989, just a few months after the archive was established. Seeing an opportunity, the two Jewish organizations — one setting, one rising — partnered on an ambitious preservation effort.
The archive commissioned Hans Jonas to photograph the entire synagogue and Bernard Liff to draft architectural renderings of the floor plan. The carpenter Leslie Clifford was hired to oversee deconstruction of the sanctuary furnishings: the ark, lectern, bima, pews, mechitza, yahrzeit plaques and bookcases. The hauling company Move Express, owned by Steve Mitnick, crated all of these furnishings and shipped them to storage. All four men performed their work either pro bono or at cost. The archive only spent about $210.
Going to such lengths was justified because Machsikei Hadas was a rare opportunity to preserve the texture of the old immigrant synagogues of the Hill District. Machsikei Hadas was one of perhaps two dozen Jewish congregations founded in the Hill District between 1890 and 1940. A group of Galician Jews started the congregation in 1896. They dedicated a two story brick synagogue at Wylie and Granville streets in the Hill District in 1911 and remained in that home until 1953, when they relocated to Negley Avenue.
Machsikei Hadas did not need to move to East Liberty. East Liberty already had five synagogues in 1953. So why did it make the move? An answer can be found in the words of Bennie Fassberg, who wrote the following in 1936, on the occasion of Machsikei Hadas’ 40th anniversary: “Our Shul, to us, the older members, meant much more than simply a place of religious worship. Torn by fate from our homes in Europe, from our families, friends and every other association that was dear to us, we could hardly have found a rallying centre, where we could forget our economic struggle and, sometimes, indifferent success in the acquisition of a new home. The Shul, then, was social club, friendly inn, study circle and many other things of a similar nature to its members.”
If the Jewish archives had been established in 1948, it would be filled with the records of old Hill District congregations like Machsikei Hadas. Instead, as the Jewish population of Pittsburgh moved to the eastern neighborhoods, a generation of records disappeared.
By good fortune, Machsikei Hadas took most of its things with it. According to congregational memory, all the sanctuary furnishings were moved from the Hill District to East Liberty. The claim makes sense, but no documentation actually supports it. The contract for the construction of the Wylie Avenue synagogue makes no mention of furnishings. There are no known interior photographs. The oldest surviving image of the ark was taken in 1953, during the week of the dedication ceremony in East Liberty.
The closest thing to proof comes from Jonas. His photographs of the synagogue show a support beam running across the length of the ceiling, exposed when several rooms of a residence became one large sanctuary in a house of worship. The beam could not be moved, of course, and so the ark had to accommodate. Without the documentary effort commissioned by the archive, this small significant detail might have been lost to history. pjc
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-454-6406.