Rodef Shalom is striving to designate a historic landmark

Matthew Falcone recalls the first time he saw the majestic, stained-glass sanctuary of the Rodef Shalom parish in Shadyside.

Falcone moved to Pittsburgh about 12 years ago, and although he was familiar with the dark and often cramped synagogues of Europe – many of the more ornate synagogues destroyed during World War II – his frame of reference for American synagogues was even less grandiose.

“I had seen the 1960s-style boxing synagogues in Northern Virginia – boring, very nondescript,” said Falcone, who is now Rodef Shalom’s chairman. “I had really never seen anything like Rodef Shalom. When I entered the sanctuary, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god! Jews did that! ‘ It felt totally revolutionary to me. I remember thinking, ‘This is so American, so modern, so open.’ ”

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Falcone now hopes some formalities with Pittsburgh officials can ensure that future generations will be as delighted with the Reformed Church building on Fifth Avenue as he is.

Rodef Shalom, during the celebration of its 165th anniversary that month, filed a 70-page motion with the City of Pittsburgh for nomination as a historic landmark on November 9th. The designation, if approved by the Pittsburgh City Council, would anchor the importance of Rodef Shalom to the growth and structure of Pittsburgh and protect the site from inadvertent changes or redevelopments.

Often referred to as the oldest and largest synagogue in western Pennsylvania, Rodef Shalom grew in leaps and bounds over many years.

In 1847, 12 Jewish immigrants founded a funeral company to establish a Jewish cemetery on Troy Hill, as stated in the community’s historical designation papers. The next year the group began meeting in a rented room for worship as the Shaare Shamayim Congregation.

Rodef Shalom Parish (Photo courtesy of Rodef Shalom Parish)

In 1855, the membership of Shaare Shamayim and Rodef Shalom, or “the pursuer of peace,” arose. The first home of the German community was a rented hall on St. Clair Street in Allegheny in 1859. Shaare Shamayim merged with Rodef Shalom again in 1860 when the latter started a day school and bought property on Eighth Street in downtown Pittsburgh. When the building was inaugurated in 1862, it was the only synagogue in western Pennsylvania.

Rodef Shalom soon established himself as a leader among some American communities in the transition from Orthodox Judaism to Reform Judaism. In 1863, a majority of Rodef Shalom’s congregation voted for a reorientation of their practices towards Reform Judaism: services were shortened, women were allowed to sit with men in the shrine, men were not required to wear Jarmulke or prayer shawls, and an organ was introduced to accompany traditional songs.

In 1885, the ward spiritual leader Rabbi Lippman Mayer hosted a national convention of like-minded rabbis that led to the Pittsburgh Platform. “It thought Judaism was a religion, not a nation; that the Bible was an ethical guide, not the infallible Word of God; and that American Jews don’t have to remain kosher, ”said the motion for historic landmark nomination. The Pittsburgh Platform guided Reform Judaism until 1937 when the movement adopted a different platform.

In 1907 Rodef Shalom opened his third building, which today consists of four components: a sanctuary designed by Henry Hornbostel in an eclectic style with influences from Modern French and Beaux-Arts; a wing for religious education in the west; a large hall wing to the north and east; and a smaller, two-story “Porte-Cochere” that stands on the rear facade and was built by The Design Alliance about 20 years ago, according to the temple’s proposal to the city.

The sanctuary, arguably the most breathtaking feature of the building, is centered around “a monumental auditorium with a square floor plan … crowned by a convex mansard roof or a square dome of green bricks with a central skylight”. When the sanctuary was originally constructed in 1907, it had an adjoining rear wing that was used for Sunday school, social programs, administration, and other functions.

“Today,” according to the application, “there is practically no discernible trace of this wing, as it has been lost due to subsequent additions and multiple renovations.”

The religion education wing, including the J. Leonard Levy Hall, was built in 1938. The social hall wing, which also includes the Solomon B. Freehof Hall, was built between 1954 and 1956.

Rodef Shalom’s building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since the 1970s. Researchers Jeff Slack and Angelique Bamberg, Cornell University alumni who worked together on the historic designation application for several months, said the national designation was almost entirely honorable.
“There are teeth at the local level,” Slack told the Chronicle.

Slack worked on researching Rodef Shalom’s architecture and design, looking for “defining features that will allow us to see and understand the importance of the property,” he said. Bamberg concentrated more on the social and cultural history of the community.

The couple had previously worked together on the National Register of Historic Places application for the Western State Penitentiary in Pittsburgh. Bamberg also brooded over Hornbostel’s architectural work in a study of B’nai Israel, a closed community in East Liberty whose land is being adaptively converted into residential buildings. Hornbostel designed the epic rotunda of this building.

“It was a real privilege for me to be able to work on these projects one after the other,” said Bamberg. “It’s fun when you like your work.”

“It’s really exciting for me to slip into someone else’s shoes and see … why these things are important to them,” added Slack. “I’m just happy to be able to study these buildings and share what I find.”

The process for promoting Slack and Bamberg is “pretty straightforward,” according to Sarah Quinn, a conservationist at the Pittsburgh City Planning Department.

The city’s historical review commission is expected to consider the application with a preliminary hearing in early December, Quinn said. It will then make a recommendation to the Pittsburgh City Council based on two main factors: historical significance and “integrity” of the building.

“Something as simple as vinyl siding – all of those things make up the integrity of the building,” Quinn said.

The city planning committee will also review the application and make a separate recommendation to Pittsburgh City Council. When the city council deems the recommendations appropriate, it issues a “Certificate of Appropriateness,” or COA, which will dictate how the exterior of the building can be treated. The whole process can take several months.

Why are you doing it?

“Often to protect the building,” said Quinn. “You can’t tear down a building [such as this] without prior approval from the Historic Review Commission. “

“We are really hopeful and excited to do so,” said Falcone, Rodef Shalom’s chief executive officer. “Apparently we are the first Jewish place of worship to go through this process in Pittsburgh.”

Falcone said Rodef Shalom officials spent much time discussing how the historical designation request is “related to our identity, progressive Jewish values, and particularly Reform Judaism.”

“The sanctuary is not only pretty – it has a direct link to the story of Rodef Shalom,” he added.

Rabbi Aaron Bisno, the chief rabbi of Rodef Shalom, said the application for a historic landmark was “a long overdue recognition of our importance in the city.”

“When I came to Pittsburgh 18 years ago, I knew the history of the ward, the rabbis, the members, and the good works of the ward,” Bisno said. “But one of the things I love most about our building is that people are seeing it for the first time – our sanctuary, our sacred spaces.

“Hopefully,” added Bisno, “this designation ensures that Rodef Shalom remains a beacon of Jewish ideals.” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.

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