Jewish Immigrants

Jewish Immigration: Jewish Community Center

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The Hebrew numbers on the clock tower of the Jewish Community Center provide an immediate point of interest as I walk along the busy Pittsburgh street.  Originally known as the Columbian School and Settlement, the Community Center was founded by the Council of Jewish Women in 1895.  Like many settlement houses of the time, it included English and citizenship classes, as well as free baths and a reading room.  In 1909, a new building was donated by Theresa and Henry Kaufmann in memory of their daughter, Irene (“History.”)  This rectangular edifice, then known as the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, provided healthcare and educational programs to a diverse population of immigrants, including Jews and African- Americans (“Rauh Jewish Archives.”).

Settlement houses like the Irene Kaufmann Settlement provided invaluable resources to Pittsburgh’s immigrant population.  The specific goals of these institutions varied, but their common goals remained similar.  All settlement houses were founded to improve the quality of life of the poor and work for social reform, through providing educational, recreational, and vocational opportunities.  For immigrants, especially those emigrating from Europe, language barriers often proved insurmountable.  Many were refused jobs and other opportunities due to their illiteracy, keeping entire communities mired in poverty.  To resolve this immense problem, organizations similar to the Irene Kaufmann Settlement taught English and civic classes, helping immigrants to improve their positions in life (“Settlement House History.”).

Another major impact the Settlement houses provided was less positive.  Many immigrant families felt that their children were becoming “Americanized”, and converting to the religious beliefs held by the founders of the organizations.  Because of this, specifically Jewish settlement houses, like the Irene Kaufmann Center, began to offer programs like Hebrew schools to young Jewish children, in addition to the other, more mainstream classes.  Because of this, the Jewish communities in major American cities thrived for decades (“Settlement Houses.”).

1- “History.” JCC Pittsburgh RSS. Jewish Community Center, 2014. Web. 03 May 2014.

2-“Rauh Jewish Archives.” Rauh Jewish Archives. Senator John Heinz History Center, n.d. Web. 03 May 2014.

3-“Settlement House History.” – United Neighborhood Houses. United Neighborhood Houses, 2011. Web. 03 May 2014.

4- “Settlement Houses.” Settlement Houses. Jewish Virtual Library, 2008. Web. 03 May 2014.


Jewish Push and Pull Factors: Rodef Shalom

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The inscription on the synagogue entrance reads “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people”.  As I walk through the well-manicured garden of the Rodef Shalom, the concave, aquamarine roof casts an oblong shadow on the abstract menorahs that light the grounds.  The synagogue has a convoluted history; it was split into two congregations in 1855, then reunited after reconciliation in 1860.  Over the following decades, Rodef Shalom changed from Orthodox Judaism to Reform Judaism, instituting major changes in doctrine and services.  In 1870, Rabbi Lippman Mayer began delivering sermons in English rather than the traditional German, then hosted a meeting of other Pittsburgh Reform rabbis in 1885.  This new “Pittsburgh Platform” led to a change of doctrine, deciding that the Bible was not to be used as “the infallible word of God” and stating that keeping Kosher was no longer mandatory.  These decisions served as the official platform for North American Reform Judaism until 1937.  Because of the significance and importance of Rodef Shalom, many Jewish immigrants moving from Europe settled in the area and joined the congregation (“History of Rodef Shalom”).

Much of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community emigrated to America to escape discrimination and persecution in their home communities.  In 1904, the largest wave of Jewish Immigrants fled Russia and Poland’s Tsarist government, which restricted the areas in which they could reside and their available jobs.  The Russian Pogroms in 1881- 1884 and 1903- 1906 forced many Jews to flee their ancestral homes for a safer life in America (“American Jewish Immigration”).  German Jews fled during the late 1840s and 1850s after failed liberal revolutions, continuing this political mindset throughout their lives in America.  Like the congregation of Rodef Shalom, many synagogues embraced Reform Judaism over Orthodox Judaism (Bazelon, Bruce.).

Besides emigrating to America for personal safety and freedom, Jewish Immigrants also made the difficult trans-Atlantic journey for religious and economic reasons.  In Poland, rural cooperatives were created to exclude Jews from the local economy, and the Romanian government attempted to “drive them out of the country”.  Many Eastern European governments used persecution and intimidation to attempt to solve “the Jewish problem”, and fueled much Semitic emigration out of Europe and into the United States (Ettinger, Shmuel.).

1-Bazelon, Bruce. “Jews in Pennsylvania.” Groups. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1986. Web. 03 May 2014.

2-“History of Rodef Shalom.” Rodef Shalom. Rodef Shalom Congregation, n.d. Web. 03 May 2014.

3- Hay, Jeff. “Jewish Peoples in the United States.” Immigration. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven, 2001. 84-85. Print.

4- Ettinger, Shmuel. “Jewish Emigration in the 19th Century – My Jewish Learning.” Jewish Emigration in the 19th Century – My Jewish Learning. My Jewish Learning, n.d. Web. 03 May 2014.

5-“American Jewish Immigration.” The Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art RSS. The Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art, n.d. Web. 02 May 2014.