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After 50 years of growth, Temple Emanuel is starting a big renovation

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

By Dan Gigler, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Over the next two weeks, Rabbi Mark Mahler of Temple Emanuel in Mt. Lebanon will lead 650 families in celebrating the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for the 50th time as a congregation.

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From humble beginnings, Temple Emanuel is now one of the largest congregations in Western Pennsylvania, and a facet of its significance is its location.

"American Judaism spread to the suburbs across the country in the 1950s, and Temple Emanuel reflects that phenomenon in Pittsburgh," Mahler said.

The history of Jews in Pittsburgh dates to the 1840s, when German Jews began arriving in the city, Myrna Silverman says in her book, "Strategies for Social Mobility: Family, Kinship and Ethnicity within Jewish Families in Pittsburgh."

By 1910, some 40,000 Eastern European Jews called the Hill District home before populating East End neighborhoods of Oakland and Squirrel Hill, which is still the cradle of Jewish life in Pittsburgh. As the post-World War II proliferation of suburbs drew masses of people out of American cities, it brought Jews to Pittsburgh's southern suburbs.

In 1951, Mt. Lebanon Township was well known as a predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant dominion of wealthy Pittsburgh. Jewish families were a rarity.

Planting roots

In April of that year, a small group of 75 Jewish families established their presence in Mt. Lebanon by forming the first temple of Reform Judaism in the South Hills, Temple Emanuel. They met in school and church basements and carried Torahs in trunks of cars before building a home of their own.

At age 80, Dean Hirschfield is enjoying the days of his second career in real estate. Neatly dressed in a gray suit and sharp blue tie, he reflected on the chance that brought him to Pittsburgh 63 years ago from his hometown of Boston.

"In high school I had every intention of attending MIT for college. My grades were good, and I was interested in technical fields. But, this was in 1938, during the height of the Depression.

"I got a letter from the admissions office that said they had too many kids from Boston," Hirschfield said. "My uncle had heard of a school, Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh. I got a $1,000 scholarship there, and that was it, I was going to Pittsburgh."

Hirschfield enrolled at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon) and met his future wife, Melva, on the campus. After fighting in the Pacific Theater of World War II, he returned to Pittsburgh and went into a jewelry business with his father-in-law. When his wife became pregnant, he had to find a home for them. The then-sooty city didn't appeal to him as a place to raise a family.

"Pittsburgh was horrible in 1945," Hirschfield said. "I didn't like Squirrel Hill. The houses were old, and it was dirty from the mills in the valley. Mt. Lebanon was pastoral. There were still cows roaming fields on Bower Hill Road, and the schools were excellent."

Like anyone else, Jews who moved to Mt. Lebanon were drawn to its idyllic nature. But finding an outlet for their religious life wasn't easy. The few Jews in the area either made the trip across town to Rodef Shalom for services and their children's Jewish education or went to Beth El, which was then a small synagogue in Beechview (it's now in Scott).

"After a few years, my good friend Bernie Samuels said, 'We want to start a synagogue.' I said, 'Bernie, there aren't enough Jews in the South Hills.'"

But as the idea was talked up, it was realized there were more Jewish families than previously thought. Seventy-five families signed up at a meeting in April 1951.

"We came together almost like a coagulation," Hirschfield said.

Rabbi Philip Frankel would be the first to lead the congregation, which took the name "Emanuel," meaning, "God is with us," from the largest Reform congregation and synagogue in the world in New York City.

Community relations

Hirschfield conceded the idea of shaking up the ivory towers seemed difficult. Some Mt. Lebanon neighborhoods, notably Virginia Manor, were perceived as discouraging Jews from living there.

"In that day, Mt. Lebanon had a bad reputation as a bigoted, WASP-y place. But we found that what we thought was bigotry wasn't even there. The township embraced the idea of a Jewish congregation and helped us, in fact."

Another founding member, Jack London, agreed. "We were allowed to use Mellon and Howe schools and Bower Hill Community Church and several other churches offered their halls for services. We had no resistance from the community. Rabbi Harold Silver went to the schools to make sure the kids wouldn't get an absence on Jewish holidays. We never had a problem."

To this day, Temple Emanuel is an integral part of the interfaith community in the South Hills, participating annually in interfaith Thanksgiving services and South Hills Interfaith Ministries events. Likewise, the daily day-care center run by Emanuel is open to children of all faiths, and Emanuel has welcomed interfaith couples.

When Temple Emanuel finally selected a site, some 200 residents opposed the plan for the Bower Hill Road building. They argued it would "inescapably magnify" traffic hazards on the road and that the 10-acre plot of land would take too much land off tax rolls.

Mahler said some thinly veiled anti-Semitism may have been at work but is quick to reiterate, "Through our history, our interfaith relations in the community have been wonderful."

A vibrant temple

In 1953, an agreement was made for allotment of a 5-acre parcel of land, and design, fund-raising and construction began immediately thereafter. The inaugural Shabbat services in the new building were held Sept. 9, 1955. The temple flourished.

By 1962, when the second phase of the temple's construction was complete, 300 families attended services led by Silver. When Rabbi William Sajowitz was installed in 1968, membership had swelled to 500 families. Mahler, a New Jersey native, served as Sajowitz's assistant beginning in 1980 and became head rabbi in 1985.

It is a Friday, just weeks before the High Holy Days, the busiest time of the year for a rabbi and synagogue staff. Mahler whisks around the synagogue, pointing out the spots where what the congregation calls "Temple Moments" occur.

Rooms that host lectures and classes and group meetings might also be a preparation area for a bride. The playrooms of preschoolers might double as a Hebrew study room for young men and women preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs. Often, one of these events will take place just "Temple Moments" after another has finished.

"We've been bursting at the seams for 15 years," congregation President Betty Jo Hirschfield Louik, Dean Hirschfield's daughter, said.

Though it's cramped and can make for hectic transitions, the number of events at Emanuel is, nonetheless, a reflection of the vibrancy of the temple and its importance to its members and the community.

Reaching to future

Temple Emanuel's 50th year has been a dynamic one for the congregation. Not only have members reflected on the past, they have also begun a gateway to the future for the Emanuel community.

In an April ceremony, the temple dedicated a new Torah, painstakingly created by Rabbi Moshe Klein of New York City, a sofer, or scribe trained to prepare Torahs.

Using a turkey quill pen and a carbon-based ink made from lampblack, Mahler helped Klein guide the final words of the 10,416 lines of text onto a parchment made from the bleached hide of a kosher animal, as Jewish tradition states. Each piece of parchment is sewn to the preceding piece with a string made from the sinew of a kosher calf to create the 90-page scroll.

And a formal groundbreaking ceremony was held Saturday for the temple's expansion project.

Designed by Rothschild Architects of Regent Square, the $3.6 million 13,000-square-foot renovation will include a new chapel, library, common room, eight new classrooms, a learning center, a courtyard and a youth lounge. Construction is expected to take about 10 months.

Dan Rothschild, president of Rothschild Architects and a member of Temple Emanuel for the past seven years, said the design incorporates themes of light, time and sacred land, chosen to coincide with a movement in Reform Judaism, "to make the mood of prayer more participatory, informal and emotional."

Architects worked closely with Rabbi Mahler to explore these themes in the plans. Mahler shares an anecdote of how the design reflects the tight-knit nature of his congregation.

"A dear friend of mine is a rabbi in Florida. When they built a new synagogue, he took me through and pointed out all kinds of symbols in the design that he selected. But Dan Rothschild is a regular participant in our Torah study group, and much of what was incorporated in the design is a result of our study together."

As Mahler and his congregants reach toward the future, Jack London and Dean Hirschfield reflect on their 50 years' involvement with Emanuel as one of the seminal aspects of their lives.

"It's extremely satisfying," London said. "We created a strong, visible community of Jewish families and gave a Jewish presence so that people who might move to Mt. Lebanon know that Temple Emanuel is there for them."

"At the end of my life," Hirschfield said, "I can say that I created a family and helped build a house of worship. My daughter is active in it, and my grandkids belong, and when I came to Pittsburgh, I didn't even know if I'd stay. I'd say that coming to Pittsburgh was a good move."

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