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.

Those Who Left Western Pennsylvania: The Schoenthals 1880-1900

Although most of the extended Schoenthal family was located in western Pennsylvania during the 1880s, a few family members had moved further east.  I’ve already written about Julius Schoenthal and his life and his family in Washington, DC.  He was a German and US veteran, a shoemaker, and the father of four children.  In the 1880s he and his wife Minnie were busy raising their family.

What I had not mentioned in my post about Julius was that by 1879, he was joined in Washington, DC, by his younger (by nine years) brother Nathan.  On the 1880 census, Nathan was living in DC, not married, and working as a clerk in a “fancy store.” I am not sure what that is, but according to the Free Dictionary, it is “one where articles of fancy and ornament are sold.”   Nathan and Julius were not living in the same enumeration district, and the 1880 census did not provide street addresses, so I don’t know how close together the brothers were living.  I don’t know why Nathan left Washington, PA, for Washington, DC, but I would assume that having a brother there was a factor.

Washington, D.C. (Sept. 26, 2003) - Aerial vie...

Washington, D.C. (Sept. 26, 2003) – Aerial view of the Washington Monument with the White House in the background. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By 1883, however, Nathan had moved again.  He was then living in Richmond, Virginia, working as a salesman, according to the city directory for that year.  He was still in Richmond in 1888.  According to the 1900 census, Nathan married a woman named Alice in 1890.  I have not been able find out very much about Alice except that she was born in South Carolina in 1865.  I don’t know her birth name, I don’t know anything about her family, and I don’t know where she married Nathan.


English: Looking east on Main Street, Richmond...

English: Looking east on Main Street, Richmond, Virginia, ca. 1901-1907. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perhaps Alice had been living in Philadelphia; in 1891 and 1892, Nathan appeared in the Philadelphia city directory, working as a “supt,” which I assume means he was a superintendent.  But of what?

Philadelphia City Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylv...

Philadelphia City Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, in 1896 Nathan Schoenthal is listed in the directory for Lancaster, Pennsylvania, working as an assistant superintendent for Prudential Insurance Company, so I assume that that is what he was also doing in Philadelphia and perhaps even in Richmond.  He is also listed as an insurance agent in the 1898 Lancaster directory.

English: North Duke Street in Lancaster, Penns...

English: North Duke Street in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But he was not done moving because in 1900 he and Alice were living in Newport News, Virginia, where Nathan continued to work as an insurance agent.  They had been married for ten years, as mentioned above, and had no children.

A year later they moved once again, this time to Petersburg, Virginia, a city about 24 miles south of Richmond.  According to the 1901 directory for Petersburg, Nathan was now an assistant superintendent for the Insurance Company of Virginia.  He was still in that position there in 1905, but in the 1909 directory for Petersburg he is listed as a solicitor without further description.

Exchange Building (Petersburg, Virginia).(cropped)

Exchange Building (Petersburg, Virginia).(cropped) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


And then in 1910, Nathan Schoenthal is listed in the Baltimore directory as a manager, but I’ve no idea of what.  Is it possible that this is not the same Nathan Schoenthal?  I don’t know.  But this is the last record I have for Nathan.  I cannot find him or Alice on the 1910 census, and in June 1912, an “Alice Shoenthal” married a man named John Alexander Mallory in Petersburg, Virginia.  Had Nathan died? Had their marriage ended?  Had he moved to Baltimore without Alice? Had she finally gotten fed up with moving from place to place? I don’t know.

Nathan Schoenthal wife remarries



I’ve hit one of those brick walls, and I have no answers.  Nathan Schoenthal, a man who moved from place to place and then disappeared, will be in my “To Be Done” folder for a while.

Yet another brick wall.

Yet another brick wall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The third Schoenthal brother who left western Pennsylvania, in addition to Julius and Nathan, was Simon.  Simon had moved to Philadelphia by 1880, where he continued to work as a bookbinder.  Unlike his brother Nathan, Simon’s life was remarkably stable and consistent.  He was still working as a bookbinder and living in Philadelphia in 1890.

The 1880s were productive years at home for Simon and his wife Rose nee Mansbach.  By 1880, they’d had five children: twins, Ida and Harry, born in 1873; then Gertrude, born in 1875; Louis, born in 1878, and Maurice, born in 1879, all of whom were born in western Pennsylvania.  After that they had five more who were born in Philadelphia: Martin (1881), Jacob (1883), Hettie (1885), Estelle (1888), and Sidney (1891).  Rose had been pregnant nine times, almost every other year over almost twenty years.  Wow.

In 1887, the oldest daughter Ida died from heart disease; she was only fourteen years old.  No matter how many children they had, losing the first born daughter Ida must have been devastating for the family.  It must have been especially hard for Harry, her twin.

Ida Shoenthal death certificate

Ida Shoenthal death certificate “Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Death Certificates, 1803-1915,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-267-12895-183388-90?cc=1320976 : accessed 28 October 2015), 004008625 > image 605 of 612; Philadelphia City Archives and Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

By 1890, Simon and Rose had nine children living with them, ranging in age from Harry, who was seventeen, to Sidney, who was an infant.  Interestingly, around this time Simon changed occupations.  He is listed as selling “segars” in the 1891 and 1892 Philadelphia directories.

By 1898, Simon and Rose had relocated to  Atlantic City, where Simon now owned a “notion and bric-a-brac store” that was destroyed by a fire on February 7 of that year.

Fire in Atl City store of Simon Schoenthal


By 1900, however, Simon was back in business in Atlantic City, as reported on the 1900 census.  He was then operating a cigar and stationery store.  Six of their nine children were living with Rose and Simon: Louis was working as a cigar salesman, and Martin and Jacob were working as “laundrymen.”  Hettie, Estelle, and Sidney were also living at home.

There were three children missing from Simon and Rose’s Atlantic City household on the 1900 census:  Harry, Gertrude, and Maurice.  Harry, now 27, was a student at Juniata College in Huntingdon in 1900, as listed on the census.  Juniata was at that time a  relatively new college, founded in 1876 by the Church of the Brethren, a Protestant sect started in Germany.  I would be interested in knowing what drew Harry to Juniata and what classes he took while there. Two years later, Harry was living in Atlantic City where his parents and most of his siblings were living; he was working for Atlantic Wine and Liquor, according to a city directory.

As for Simon and Rose’s daughter Gertrude, she had married a man named Jacob J. Miller in Atlantic City on February 12, 1898, when she was 23.  Jacob was born in Germany on June 6, 1873, and had immigrated to the US sometime in the 1880s.  A year after marrying, Jacob and Gertrude were living in Tucson, Arizona, where Jacob was working for the Crescent Cigar Company, the same industry in which his father-in-law Simon and brother-in-law Louis were engaged.  In 1900, they had an infant daughter Juliette and were living in Pima, Arizona.  Jacob was working as a grocer.  Gertrude and Jacob would have two more children: Harry in 1902 and Sylvester in 1906.

A stunning view of Cluff Ranch Pond near Pima,...

A stunning view of Cluff Ranch Pond near Pima, Arizona. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As for Maurice, although I cannot find him with the family or elsewhere on the 1900 census, he and three of his brothers are all listed in the 1904 Atlantic City directory, as seen below:

Atlantic City directory 1904

Atlantic City directory 1904 Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1989 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

All four brothers were living at 22 Delaware Avenue in Atlantic City, their mother at 23 Delaware.  It appears that Martin and Jacob were running a laundry called Incomparable Laundry at 1432-1434 Atlantic Avenue and that Louis was running a cigar, tobacco, stationery and sporting goods business at the same location.  Louis also listed a billiards and pool hall on “S Virginia av n Beach.”  Maurice is listed as a manager at “S Virginia av, Ocean end.”  I think that those two addresses are likely the same location and that Maurice was managing the pool hall.

As the listings also reveal, Rose was a widow by the time of the 1904 directory’s publication.  Simon died on March 26, 1904, in Atlantic City; he was buried at Mt. Sinai cemetery in Philadelphia.  He was 55 years old and the first of my great-grandfather’s siblings to die.

I will follow up with what happened to Simon’s children and other descendants in the 20th century in a later post.