A Brief History of Jews in Western Pennsylvania: 1840-1900

Pittsburgh 1874 By Otto Krebs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pittsburgh 1874
By Otto Krebs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the questions I had when I started researching my Schoenthal relatives and their lives in western Pennsylvania was what kind of Jewish community existed in that region during the second half of the 19th century.  Learning more about my great-great-uncle Henry Schoenthal made me even more curious about that community.   I now have found two resources that help answer that question.

Susan Melnick, who is doing a project on the history of Jews in western Pennsylvania, told me about Jacob Feldman’s The Jewish Experience in Western Pennsylvania: A History 1755-1945 (1986, The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania), and I ordered a copy.  According to Feldman, although there were a number of Jews who traveled to the Pittsburgh area to transact trade and a few who even briefly settled in the region or purchased land there for investment in the mid-1700s, there was no established Jewish community in the region until the 19th century.  In fact, Jews were slow to move to Pittsburgh even in the first half of the 19th century even though the Jewish population of the US was growing as many more Jewish immigrants arrived from Europe.  Jews were settling in places like Cleveland, Cincinnati, and New Orleans, but not in Pittsburgh because it was at that point less accessible.  Although Pittsburgh was itself growing as the coal industry and manufacturing developed, there was no real Jewish community in western Pennsylvania’s largest city or elsewhere in the region as of 1840.  (Feldman, pp. 3-12)

Slowly in the early 1840s, Jewish peddlers and merchants began to arrive in Pittsburgh, and some settled there.  But as Feldman wrote, “Certainly, this tiny group of Jews could not muster a minyan, a quorum of ten men aged thirteen and over, for the religious services they held in private homes unless a few itinerant peddlers or visitors also were stopping off in town.” (Feldman, p. 16)

As transportation to and from Pittsburgh improved after 1845, the Jewish population grew, with most of the men engaged in sales of dry goods.  By 1848 Jews had organized a cemetery (Troy Hill), a mourner’s society, and a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Shaare Shamayim. Feldman estimated that by 1850 there were 35 Jewish men in Pittsburgh, three times the number of Jews that had been there just three years earlier—before the cemetery and synagogue had been founded.   These were predominantly immigrants from Germany, Lithuania, and Russia.  They were engaged primarily in making and selling clothing as well as sales of dry goods. (Feldman, 17-20)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Albanese

Troy HIll cemetery Photo courtesy of Lisa Albanese

The arrival of the railroad in the 1850s led to another substantial increase in Pittsburgh’s overall population and economy, and poor economic conditions in Germany also led to an increase in the number of Jewish immigrants leaving Germany and arriving in western Pennsylvania, including my cousins Marcus and Mina (Schoenthal) Rosenberg and Simon and Fanny (Schoenthal) Goldschmidt (later Goldsmith).  Pittsburgh was also experiencing some significant industrial development, including the beginnings of a glass manufacturing industry.  Jews expanded beyond the dry goods and clothing fields to sales of liquor and of livestock.  Many were drovers, like Amalie Schoenthal’s husband, Elias Wolfe. (Feldman, 21-23)

As the Jewish population grew, so did the number of Jewish institutions in Pittsburgh, including a benevolent society to help new arrivals, a burial society, a kosher butcher, and a new synagogue.  A  number of members split from the first synagogue, Shaare Shamayim, and formed Rodef Shalom in 1855.  The population could not support two separate congregations, however, and as more and more members joined Rodef Shalom, Shaare Shamayim suffered and in 1860 merged with Rodef Shalom, which became the name of the surviving synagogue.  In 1861, the cornerstone was laid for a synagogue building, which would be the first building owned by a Jewish congregation not only in Pittsburgh, but anywhere in western Pennsylvania.  It opened to great fanfare in 1862.  (Feldman, 23-31.)

Rodef Shalom Temple, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,...

Rodef Shalom Temple, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) (Current building, not the original)

During the 1860s and 1870s, the Jewish population of Pittsburgh continued to grow.  Rodef Shalom faced challenges as it moved from an Orthodox practice to Reform under the influence of its German-American leaders.  Those who wanted to continue an Orthodox practice left to form Tree of Life congregation.  Because services at Rodef Shalom were conducted in German,  other members left a few years later and formed another new congregation, Emanuel, also Reform but with services in English. Now the Jewish population in the city was large enough to support three congregations.  Thus, by the time some of my Schoenthal ancestors were moving to Pittsburgh in the 1870s and 1880s, there was a well-established Jewish community in Pittsburgh. (Feldman, 33-54)

But what about “Little Washington,” a much smaller town 30 miles from Pittsburgh? What kind of Jewish community existed there when Henry Schoenthal arrived in 1866 and when my great-grandfather arrived fifteen years later in 1881? Feldman reported that in 1853 my cousin Jacob Goldsmith may have been the first Jew in Washington, Pennsylvania,  followed by four more Jews within the next five or six years.  According to Feldman, when one of them, David Wolfe (possibly a relative of Amalie’s husband Elias Wolfe?) was killed accidentally by some rowdy soldiers in 1863, all the other Jews left Little Washington. (Feldman, p. 57)

According to my records, Jacob Goldsmith is listed as living in Washington, PA, even before 1853. The 1850 US census has him listed as living there and working as a tailor.  He was still there for the 1860 census and also registered for the Civil War draft in Washington in 1863. His father Simon, widow of Fanny Schoenthal, was also living in Washington by 1860. And Jacob Goldsmith was still there when his cousin Henry Schoenthal arrived there in 1866, according to Henry’s diary and the Beers biography of Henry, which says that Henry clerked in Jacob’s store for three years after he arrived in Washington.

But Jacob Goldsmith had moved to Philadelphia by 1870 and Simon Goldsmith had returned to Pittsburgh by then as well, so Henry Schoenthal and his family must have been among a very small number of Jewish residents of Washington in 1870.   Feldman noted that in 1860 there were only 250 Jews, “mostly of German origin,” living in western Pennsylvania in places other than Pittsburgh, spread out over an area of about 15,000 square miles, meaning that there were not too many Jews in any one locality.  (Feldman, p. 58)  In places like Washington, the few Jews who lived there would meet in private homes for prayer services. My great-great-uncle Henry was one of those who hosted and led such services. As of 1880, only Pittsburgh and two other towns in western Pennsylvania, Altoona and Erie, had actual synagogues. (Feldman, p. 63)

By 1890, things began to change in Little Washington.  In that year the very small Jewish community established a synagogue, Beth Israel, a congregation which exists to this day.  I was very fortunate to connect with Marilyn A. Posner, a past president of Beth Israel as well as the author of the centennial history of the synagogue, The House of Israel, A Home in Washington: 100 Years of Beth Israel Congregation, 1891-1991 / 5652-5752 (1991, Congregation Beth Israel, Washington, Pennsylvania).  As Posner’s book describes, in 1890 the congregation hired a young rabbi named Jacob Goldfarb as its first spiritual leader.  Rabbi Goldfarb was a recent immigrant from Lithuania.  As described by Posner, “He was fluent in the Lithuanian, Russian, German, Hebrew and Yiddish languages.  He was a mohel, able to perform ritual circumcisions; a shochet, or ritual butcher; a chazzan or cantor; and he studied Talmud and Torah.” (Posner, p. 1.)  If that’s not killing multiple birds with one stone, I don’t know what is!

Photo courtesy of Marilyn Posner from her book, "The House of Israel, A Home in Washington: 100 Years of Beth Israel Congregation, 1891-1991 / 5652-5752

Photo courtesy of Marilyn A. Posner from her book,
“The House of Israel, A Home in Washington: 100 Years of Beth Israel Congregation, 1891-1991 / 5652-5752


Beth Israel’s services were at first held in the home of one of its members, Nathan Samuels.  Then the congregation met in rented facilities for some years.

House of Nathan Samuels in Washiington PA where Beth Israel congregants first met Photo courtesy of Marily Posner from her book, "The House of Israel, A Home in Washington: 100 Years of Beth Israel Congregation, 1891-1991 / 5652-5752

House of Nathan Samuels in Washiington PA where Beth Israel congregants first met
Photo courtesy of Marilyn A. Posner from her book, “The House of Israel, A Home in Washington: 100 Years of Beth Israel Congregation, 1891-1991 / 5652-5752

Among the nine original members of the congregation were four of my relatives, my great-grandfather Isidore Schoenthal and two of his brothers, Henry and Nathan[1], and S.J. Katzenstein, my great-grandmother Hilda’s brother.  (Posner, p. 2).  Henry also became the president of the local branch of B’nai Brith, the Jewish fraternal organization.  (Feldman, p. 231)  My relatives were not, however, on the list of those who signed the original synagogue charter in 1901.  Feldman explained it as follows:

Beth Israel, unlike some nearby synagogues, was not Hungarian or Galician.  When its charter was taken out in 1901, twenty-four of its twenty-seven subscribers were Lithuanian …. The few Germans in Washington, Henry Schoenthal among them, were absent from the charter.

(Feldman, p. 199)

With the synagogue officially chartered, ground was broken for building a permanent home for the congregation and a cornerstone was laid on June 29, 1902.  By that time the Washington Jewish community had become one of the leading Jewish communities in western Pennsylvania outside of Pittsburgh.

Sketch of the original Beth Israel synagogue building. Courtesy of Marilyn Posner from her book, "The House of Israel, A Home in Washington: 100 Years of Beth Israel Congregation, 1891-1991 / 5652-5752

Sketch of the original Beth Israel synagogue building.
Courtesy of Marilyn A. Posner from her book,
“The House of Israel, A Home in Washington: 100 Years of Beth Israel Congregation, 1891-1991 / 5652-5752

With this history in mind, I better understand why my relatives settled in western Pennsylvania and specifically in Washington and why they felt comfortable living there.   Many of the Schoenthal descendants continued to live there for many years, and there are still quite a few living in Pittsburgh to this day.


[1] My research indicates that Nathan was no longer living in western Pennsylvania, let alone Washington, in 1890, but that he had moved to Washington, DC, ten years before and was living in either Richmond, VA, or Philadelphia by 1890.

21 thoughts on “A Brief History of Jews in Western Pennsylvania: 1840-1900

  1. Interesting. I recently moved to Pittsburgh thinking I had no family connections to the area, only to discover that my great-grandfather, who was Jewish, lived here for many years when he first came to America. Thanks for sharing your research.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amy, Pittsburgh’s 7th Mayor, Samuel Pettigrew, was Jewish! His father, a Christian, came to America from Scotland & fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill (Revolutionary War). At a party for George Washington he met & fell in love with a Jewish woman from Easton, PA.
    I work in the Mayor’s office & have been researching all of our Mayors’ families for our 200th anniversary.
    My contact info:412.255.2632.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Gloria! Thank you for reading and for getting in touch. That’s a fascinating bit of history. When was Pettigrew the mayor? And when is the 200th anniversary celebration?


  3. Our 200th Anniversary of incorporation as a City is in 2016. I have found descendants/relatives of almost all of our 56 Mayors & they will be attending our parade & celebration on July 9, 2016.
    Pettigrew was Mayor from 1832-36, he must’ve been popular enough to win re-election 3 times, because Mayoral terms were only 1 year in those days. I haven’t found any of his direct descendants, but did find one of his sister’s direct descendants who lives in Florida. Please email me if you’d like to know more: gloria.forouzan@pittsburghpa.gov

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Is there any reference to the TUTEUR family in Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County? One branch of the Tuteurs emigrated to Pennsylvania (both Philly and Pittsburgh) from the Palatinate (Pfalz) in Germany in the middle of the 19th C. I’m curious whether they appear in the book, and whether they intersect at all with your family?


    • Hi, Michael. I checked the book’s index, and the name Tuteur does not appear, nor have I seen it in my research. Are you doing genealogy research? If so and you need some help, just let me know.


      • Thanks for such a quick reply! I have been researching the TUTEUR family (among others) since 1990. I know from the censuses and city directories that certain members of the family emigrated to Pittsburgh around 1850 and that some were still there into the 19th C. More members of this branch of the family (including the elderly mother/grandmother, Elisabetha (also Liebet) Rosenzweig Tuteur) settled in Philly, where some are reportedly buried in the Rodef Shalom cemetery. I’m trying to trace what happened to all the many descendants over the following century and a half.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Amy – Thanks so much for the link. Thanks to you, I have now connected one of the few remaining “disconnected” Tuteurs in my family tree — it turned out that he was the son of one of the “connected” Tuteurs, and he is mentioned in his father’s obituary (in the Jewish Criterion). Nothing makes me happier than filling out the tree with people who SHOULD BE related but we don’t (until now) know in what way. I will be spending A LOT more time with the Pittsburgh collection. Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Michael, I am so glad that it has been so helpful to you. I also have found many good items there. Nothing better than an obituary to open all those new pathways!


  6. do you know more about the Adler family, Jon and Miriam carol? seems like her maiden name was Levine and may have been from Pittsburgh area also? They lived in Washington PA and were part pf the community there for a while.
    Their daughter Marjorie married a David Cohen, perhaps also originally from the area.
    Thanks. and if yes is there a way to see the book on Was. Pa online somewhere?
    Eli Backman

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Eli, I am not familiar with that name. I searched my tree and my blog, and those names are not part of my family. I will email you so that you can get in touch with Marilyn. I do not have the book with me (I am out of town), and it is not available online. Thanks for reading and commenting!


  7. Pingback: Yet Another Small World Story | Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

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