Tree of Life Congregation was the first Conservative congregation in Western Pennsylvania. It was founded as an Orthodox congregation in June 1864 by a coalition of Posner, Lithuanian, Dutch and traditional Germans who left Rodef Shalom Congregation after it took its first step toward liberalization: trading the traditional Minhag Ashkenaz prayer book for Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise’s new English prayer book: Minhag America.Feldman, “The Jewish Experience in Western Pennsylvania,” p. 43-44.
Initially known by its Hebrew name Etz Hayim, Tree of Life met in home of Gustavus Grafner until 1866, when it rented a hall at Market and Second streets downtown. It obtained a charter in early 1865, purchased cemetery land in Sharpsburg, and hired Rev. Isaac Wolf as an all-purpose religious leader. It elected Grafner as its first president and adopted Minhag Poland, a related but distinct mode of worship to Minhag Ashkenaz.Tree of Life Golden Anniversary 1864-1914, p. 11-16 (online—Historic Pittsburgh). Tree of Life Congregation charter, 1865 (online—typescript, manuscript).
Opposed to what they saw as restrictive membership practices and liberal tendencies, a Lithuanian faction within the congregation broke away around 1870 to start B’nai Israel Congregation (later known as Beth Hamedrash Hagodol). The split allowed Tree of Life to pursue a segment of the local Jewish community looking for a modern religious experience situated within the broad boundaries of Jewish tradition.Feldman, “The Jewish Experience in Western Pennsylvania,” p. 70-72. It maintained some aesthetic conventions of Orthodox worship such as an affinity for cantorial music, while strategically modernizing in other ways, such as shortening its services. Joining a larger national movement of congregations adopting similar changes, Tree of Life became one of the first congregations to endorse the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1886—an initial step toward joining what eventually became known as the Conservative movement.
Alexander Fink was elected president of Tree of Life in 1872 and remained in the position for the last 20 years of his life. After meeting temporarily at Lafayette Hall at Fourth and Wood streets, Tree of Life purchased and greatly renovated a church at Fourth and Ross streets, dedicating the synagogue in 1882. The congregation hired Abraham Goldstein as a sexton and teacher in 1884. He remained in that position more than 50 years, and three generations of his descendants became leaders within the congregation and its Sisterhood.Tree of Life Golden Anniversary 1864-1914, p. 18-20 (online—Historic Pittsburgh).
Tree of Life continually liberalized its ritual practices over the next quarter century, although at a slower pace and in a more restrained fashion than the changes being implemented at Rodef Shalom. It instituted a confirmation ceremony, allowed mixed seating for men and women, and included a selection of English prayers and added a sermon. Women became increasingly involved in congregational activities starting in 1899 through the formation of a Ladies Auxiliary, the first of a Jewish congregation in Western Pennsylvania. The Sisterhood, as it became known, came to assume several key congregational responsibilities, especially fundraising and youth religious education.
After more than 30 years without consistent rabbinic leadership, Tree of Life hired Rabbi Michael Fried in 1898. A recent Jewish Theological Seminary graduate, Fried was a young and dynamic figure who engendered respect from diverse segments of the local Jewish community. He was among the first rabbis in Western Pennsylvania to promote Zionism, and he ventured into the surrounding towns in the hopes of convincing emerging Jewish communities to adopt Conservative practices.“Jewish Religious Society of Connellsville,” Jewish Criterion, May 16, 1902 (online). Tree of Life grew rapidly under his leadership, doubling in less than a decade to include more than 50 families.
Limited by its small synagogue on Ross Street, Tree of Life launched a campaign to relocate the congregation in Oakland. It laid the cornerstone of a Greek Revival synagogue on Craft Avenue in August 1906 and dedicated the building (D. A. Crone, architect) in March 1907. Fried contract typhoid fever before the dedication and was forced on doctor’s orders to resign his post and depart for the fresher air of California.“Laying the cornerstone,” Jewish Criterion, Aug. 24, 1906, p. 10 (online). “Dedication of Tree of Life Synagogue,” Jewish Criterion, March 29, 1907 (online).
Rabbi Rudolph I. Coffee was hired in late 1906. He focused on youth activities, social services, and promoting Zionism, as well as the ongoing campaign of ritual reforms. The congregation instituted a late Friday evening service in 1909 and hosted former President Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. The move to Oakland put Tree of Life at the geographic center of a Jewish community split between the Hill District and the emerging East End and Squirrel Hill neighborhoods. The vestry rooms at Tree of Life became a popular meeting place for Jewish groups that attempted to transcend the religious and class differences of the day, especially the new Young Men’s Hebrew Association. By the time Coffee resigned in 1915 to oversee the social services arm of the International Order of B’nai B’rith, Tree of Life had more than tripled to include some 160 families.“Dr. Coffee to Leave Pittsburgh,” Jewish Criterion, Aug. 20, 1915 (online). Haas, Edgar. Letter to the Editor, Y Weekly, Oct. 12, 1945, p3 (online).
Rabbi Morris Mazure was hired in 1915. A 15th-generation rabbi, he focused on the intellectual life of the congregation, creating its first library and improving its religious school. He also established the denominational credentials of the congregation by formally affiliating with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, then called the United Synagogue of America. He led the congregational response to World War I as chairman of the Tree of Life Liberty Bond committee. Concerned about accommodating the ongoing growth of a migrating membership, he promoted a plan in 1919 to relocate Tree of Life to the emerging neighborhoods of Squirrel Hill or East Liberty. The plans stalled, and Tree of Life ultimately remained in Oakland for another generation.“New Tree of Life Rabbi,” Jewish Criterion, Aug. 18, 1916, p. 1, 10 (online). “Tree of Life Members To Get New Home,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, Nov. 22, 1919 (online—Newspapers.com).
In its first 75 years, Tree of Life produced several lay leaders who contributed to broader Jewish communal causes. Alexander Fink oversaw the Hebrew Benevolent Society for 16 years. Harry Applestein led the effort in 1910 to create the Young Men Hebrew Association, which initially met in the Tree of Life vestry rooms. Sol Rosenbloom was one of the chief promoters of Jewish education in Pittsburgh, especially the Hebrew Institute. Marks Browarsky was an important financial backer of the Hebrew Free Loan Association and the Jewish Home for the Aged. Henry Jackson served as president of Montefiore Hospital and the Jewish Home for the Aged. The department store owner Isaac Seder was a backer of Montefiore Hospital and the Young Men’s & Women’s Hebrew Association. Dr. K. I. Sanes was one of the first Jewish surgeons in Pittsburgh. “Men of the Tree of Life Who Wrote Community History,” Jewish Criterion, August 19, 1927, p 9, 11 (online).
Rabbi Herman Hailperin was hired in 1922, a few months before his graduation from Jewish Theological Seminary. He led Tree of Life until he retired in 1968 and remained its rabbi emeritus until his death in 1973. He continued to liberalize the congregation. It added organ music to its services, eliminated observance of the second day of Jewish holidays (in direct opposition to the Conservative movement), instituted a bat mitzvah ceremony for girls, and allowed women to be called to the Torah and counted among a minyan (the quorum of 10 required for holding public worship). Skilled in the human and intellectual sides of the rabbinate, Hailperin was Jewish chaplain of the local Veterans Administration for 15 years and taught history at the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University. Tree of Life grew four-fold during his tenure to some 725 families.
During his tenure, the congregation undertook a major modernization campaign. It relocated to Squirrel Hill, first through a short lived “Squirrel Hill Annex” on Forbes Avenue in the mid-1930s and later through the construction of a new synagogue (Charles and Edward Stotz and Alexander Sharove, architects) at Wilkins and Shady avenues. Ground was broken on the building in 1946 and dedication ceremonies took place in 1952. The original Rosenbloom Chapel, later known as the Pervin Sanctuary, included a stained-glass display. Based on an idea by Hailperin, the four windows in the display showed scenes from the religious, philanthropic, civic and economic accomplishments and experiences of the Jewish people in the United States. The synagogue was later expanded to include the 1400-seat Hailperin sanctuary in 1964, the Alex and Leona Robinson pavilion in the 1970s, and a religious school wing in the 1990s. In its final years, the Craft Avenue building served as an air-raid shelter during World War II and provided classrooms for recent immigrants studying for naturalization tests. The congregation sold the building in 1951 to the Pittsburgh Playhouse. The Playhouse expanded the facility to incorporate neighboring buildings and continued to use the complex until 2019, when it relocated downtown and the building was demolished.
Along side the move to Squirrel Hill came a series of changes. Tree of Life dedicated a second cemetery, the Tree of Life Memorial Park on Reese Run Road in Franklin Township. In the mid-1940s, the congregation also created a PTA for its religious school and a Junior Congregation to encourage participation among young families.
Tree of Life membership grew through the tenure of Rabbi Solomon Kaplan (1968-1982) and into the tenure of Rabbi Alvin Berkun (1982-2006) but declined in the 1990s. Under the leadership of Rabbi Stephen Listfield, Tree of Life began renting space in its building to other entities. The new Congregation Or L’Simcha arrived in 2008 and merged with Tree of Life in 2010, bringing the combined membership to 530 family units. Rabbi Chuck Diamond moved from Or L’Simcha to oversee the merged congregation. Tree of Life continued renting space throughout its building in subsequent years, bringing on Dor Hadash Congregation, Na’amat USA Pittsburgh, and New Light Congregation as tenants. Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers was installed as spiritual leader in 2017.
On October 27, 2018, the Tree of Life synagogue was the site of the deadliest antisemitic incident in American history, when an attacker killed 11 members of the three congregations in the building and wounded six others, including four police officers. In the aftermath, Tree of Life temporarily relocated its offices and meeting spaces to Rodef Shalom Congregation and utilized Cavalry Episcopal Church for High Holidays services and larger gatherings, while also launching a rebuilding campaign at its synagogue site. Tree of Life also created new congregational initiatives such as the Joyce Fienberg Book Club, and it fostered partnerships throughout the Jewish community and other groups throughout the region.
Spiritual leaders of the congregation include Isaac Wolf (1864-), Rev. A. Crone (1874-1881), Rev. A. Bernstein (1881-1891), F. Salinger (1891-1897), Rabbi Michael Fried (1898-1906), Rabbi Rudolph Coffee (1906-1915), Rabbi Morris Mazure (1916-1922), Rabbi Herman Hailperin (1922-1968), Rabbi Solomon Kaplan (1968-1982), Rabbi Alvin Berkun (1982-2000), Rabbi Avi Friedman (2000-2006), Rabbi Stephen Listfield (2006-2010), Rabbi Chuck Diamond (2010-2017), and Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers (2017-present).
In addition to Rabbi Myers, cantors include Isaac Wolf, Joseph Levin (served 1902-1940), Herman A. Marchbein (served 1947-1949), Irving E. Ashery (served c.1954-c.1959), Harry P. Silversmith (served (1957-1987), Josef Germain (served 1987-1990), and Adriane Caplowe (served 1991-c.1994). Tree of Life has also maintained a choir for many years.
|↑1||Feldman, “The Jewish Experience in Western Pennsylvania,” p. 43-44.|
|↑2||Tree of Life Golden Anniversary 1864-1914, p. 11-16 (online—Historic Pittsburgh).|
|↑3||Tree of Life Congregation charter, 1865 (online—typescript, manuscript).|
|↑4||Feldman, “The Jewish Experience in Western Pennsylvania,” p. 70-72.|
|↑5||Tree of Life Golden Anniversary 1864-1914, p. 18-20 (online—Historic Pittsburgh).|
|↑6||“Jewish Religious Society of Connellsville,” Jewish Criterion, May 16, 1902 (online).|
|↑7||“Laying the cornerstone,” Jewish Criterion, Aug. 24, 1906, p. 10 (online).|
|↑8||“Dedication of Tree of Life Synagogue,” Jewish Criterion, March 29, 1907 (online).|
|↑9||“Dr. Coffee to Leave Pittsburgh,” Jewish Criterion, Aug. 20, 1915 (online).|
|↑10||Haas, Edgar. Letter to the Editor, Y Weekly, Oct. 12, 1945, p3 (online).|
|↑11||“New Tree of Life Rabbi,” Jewish Criterion, Aug. 18, 1916, p. 1, 10 (online).|
|↑12||“Tree of Life Members To Get New Home,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, Nov. 22, 1919 (online—Newspapers.com).|
|↑13||“Men of the Tree of Life Who Wrote Community History,” Jewish Criterion, August 19, 1927, p 9, 11 (online).|