Tour to highlight ties between blacks, Jews
A huge Star of David — a symbol of Judaism — soars above the front door of Zion Baptist Church in the Hill District.
That’s okay with Rev. Adam Kinsel Jr., who finds the six-pointed image reminiscent of the star that blazed over Bethlehem when Jesus was born. The church’s one-time use as a synagogue only enhances its religious significance, he said.
“I really believe God intended the building to be there for the different faiths. It’s mighty evidence of the spirit of the Lord,” Kinsel said.
The domed former synagogue on Webster Avenue, built in the early 1900s and converted in the 1950s, will be part of a tour of the Hill District today called Shalom Sankofa. The event — which is being held a day before the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year — is designed in part “to try to create a bridge between African Americans and Jews — young adults in particular,” said Lynne Garfinkel, 37, chairwoman of Shalom Pittsburgh, one of the organizers.
It is the first event planned under the auspices of Shalom Sankofa — taken from the Hebrew word shalom — a traditional Jewish greeting or farewell that also means peace; and the expression sankofa from Akan, an African language, that translates: “We must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward; so we understand why and how we came to be who we are today.”
The Hill District has powerful symbolic allure. The Hill — long considered the heart of Pittsburgh’s black community — once was a center of life for the city’s Jewish population.
More than 90,000 blacks and about 40,000 Jews live in the city, according to the 2004 U.S. Census and a 2000 study by the Glenmary Research Center.
Blacks and Jews in the United States have strong ties historically, although the relationship has been strained in recent years.
Jews helped create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League in the early 1900s. And Jewish people stood arm-in-arm with black people during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
The long-standing relationship took a sour turn in the past two decades, as debate grew over the extent of the involvement of Jews in the slave trade that brought Africans to America. Also, the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, angered Jews with repeated slurs.
Organizers of today’s event see a need for a broader awareness among blacks and Jews of each other’s culture and history. The tour is a collaboration of Shalom Pittsburgh, the Urban League Young Professionals and the Black-Jewish Dialogue of Pittsburgh.
“At least in one neighborhood in the city, we had a shared space,” said Katrina Brabham of Observatory Hill, a committee chairwoman with the Urban League Young Professionals. “We have histories of oppression, but we also have histories of triumph, and we can share that as well.”
Brabham and Scott Leib, 39, of Squirrel Hill, treasurer of the New Pittsburgh Collaborative and vice president of Preservation Pittsburgh, came up with the idea. Organizers expect about 100 people to participate in the tour.
“The Hill District in the early part of the 1900s was populated by many ethnic minorities and they lived together pretty well,” Leib said.
“Many younger people don’t realize that connection.”
The event takes place from 2 to 5 p.m. It begins at the Hill House, 1835 Centre Ave., with a 20-minute clip from the film “A Jewish Legacy: Pittsburgh” that was directed by Barbara Burstin, a University of Pittsburgh lecturer on the Holocaust.
Participants will then tour the Hill District’s former synagogues and other Jewish landmarks. The tour will be led by Nick Lane, an expert on Jewish history in the region, and Laurence Glasco, associate professor of race and ethnicity and urban history at the University of Pittsburgh.
“There is tremendous nostalgia in the Jewish community of Pittsburgh about the glory days in the Hill,” said Lane, 65, of Point Breeze.
The Hill has conveyed a similar sense of magic for many black people, according to Tim Bradford, 51, of the East End, co-chairman of the Black-Jewish Dialogue of Pittsburgh.
“At different times there were multiple races that lived in the Hill District. It has such a history of more than one race of people,” he said.
Early residents included Germans and Scots-Irish. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the area was a melting pot of Italians, Armenians, Russians, Slovaks, Lebanese, Greeks, Syrians, Poles, Chinese, blacks and Jews, local historians say.
Former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff, who is Jewish, was born in the Hill District and lived there until she graduated from high school in 1935. Her parents had immigrated to the United States from Romania. The future mayor later settled in Squirrel Hill, which became the city’s main Jewish neighborhood.
“In those days that block on Centre Avenue (through the Hill District) were all Jewish merchants — a fruit market, produce market, a butcher, a bakery. There were at least four synagogues in that small area. Most of the people, at least in my early days, were immigrants,” Masloff recalled. “I have a soft spot in my heart for the Hill District.”
The second Shalom Sankofa event is a Nov. 3 reception at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District to showcase the history of the Jewish and African-American communities in the region.
For more information about today’s event, call (412) 992-5217. Tickets for the tour are $7 for adults and $4 for children younger than 12.