One Hundred Years and Counting

ORIGINS (1917 – 1925)

Rebecca Ruderman

Pittsburgh, in 1905, was rapidly becoming the leading steel producing city in the United States. The city was well on its way to being known not only by the name “The Steel City” but also by its less complimentary sobriquet, “The Smoky City”. It was in this environment that residents began to migrate across the Monongahela River to the newly built communities in the South Hills. This migration, naturally, included many Jewish families from Squirrel Hill, to Beechview, a relatively new suburb. This new location combined easy access to the city of Pittsburgh (a short trolley ride) with the allure of country living and new business opportunities. However, by 1917, it became apparent to the Jewish residents of Beechview that something vital was lacking. The close proximity of synagogues and religious schools in the Squirrel Hill community did not exist in the South Hills. This situation was soon to change.

Historically, whenever Jews settled in a new area, the first task was to establish a cemetery and then a Hebrew school. Synagogues followed quickly on the heels of the schools. And thus, Beth El Congregation of the South Hills began with the vision of an extraordinary woman 100 years ago. Rebecca Ruderman, a true Woman of Valor, was one of the newer inhabitants of Beechview along with her husband Harry, eight children, mother, and mother-in-law. She realized the need for a local religious school for the Jewish children as a commute to Squirrel Hill for their Hebrew education was not only long, but also extremely inconvenient. Rebecca rightly deserves to be called the founder of Beth El Congregation because of her conviction and dedication to finding a solution to the problem. Mrs. Ruderman braved the undulating, unpaved streets and sidewalks of Beechview, literally knocking on doors in search of Jewish families. She successfully convinced the Jewish mothers to join her quest to create a local religious school for their children. On July 1, 1917 an organizational meeting was held at the Broadway Theater (1535 Broadway Avenue in Beechview). These women formed The Women’s Hebrew Alliance and Sunday School, (later renamed The Jewish Mothers’ Club of Beechview), which had as its primary purpose the organization of a formal Hebrew curriculum, in addition to satisfying social needs. Rebecca succeeded in enlisting twenty families who were committed to this goal.

Identifying the future students was the first part of the task. Finding professional direction would be somewhat harder. The Jewish Mothers’ Club contacted the South Western Religious School Committee of Rodef Shalom Congregation who suggested Miss Miriam Schoenfeld for the position of the school’s first supervisor. Miss Miriam Schoenfeld was the supervisor of the Religious School Committee for the Pittsburgh Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women from 1907 until her death in 1934. Finding a permanent location for the school proved to be a daunting problem. Initially classes moved from one vacant store to another, eventually settling in the Main Hall of the Boylan Building, however, this location was still not ideal for a permanent solution. Throughout these early years, the Jewish Mothers’ Club undertook the sole funding for the school. They initiated a Sinking Fund with the intention of purchasing a house to convert into a Jewish Community Center.

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