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113 years ago, members of the Tree of Life Congregation placed documents, religious items and even a Heinz pickle pin in the cornerstone of its original synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood when it was built in 1906 (Hebrew year 5666).

The artifacts were revealed when the synagogue building, which was sold and became part of the original Pittsburgh Playhouse later acquired by Point Park University, was demolished by the University in order to sell it for future development in Oakland. The Pittsburgh Playhouse moved to its new home on Point Park’s downtown campus in 2018.

In 1953, the Tree of Life Congregation moved out of the Craft Avenue building to its current location at the corner of Wilkins and Shady Avenues in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. On Oct. 27, 2018, a gunman attacked the synagogue, killing 11 people.

On Nov. 4, 2019, Point Park President Paul Hennigan joined together with Tree of Life officials and some longtime congregants, to open a time capsule inside the cornerstone at the site on Craft Avenue. In addition to the pickle pin, items found inside included 1906 newspapers such as The Pittsburgh Gazette Times, Pittsburgh Leader, Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh Dispatch and the Jewish Criterion. The time capsule also contained a list of 1906 congregation members, letters, business cards, and a luach (Jewish calendar) and Aliyah cards.

In his remarks, Hennigan credited “our good friend Barbara Burstin (faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University who has researched the history of Jews in Pittsburgh), who suggested that we reach out to the Tree of Life Congregation to ask if they would be interested in commemorating the placement, and now removal, of the cornerstone. We want to thank the Tree of Life Congregation for all of their support on this project." 

Moving forward

Barbara Feige, executive director of the Tree of Life Congregation said, “We are so excited about this [cornerstone opening]. As you well know, we are moving forward after the tragic shooting last October, and we recently released a vision for what we want the Wilkins and Shady site to be.”

Feige noted that some longtime members of the Tree of Life, who had worshiped at the Oakland synagogue, were on hand for the cornerstone opening. These included Allen Cousin, 89, a founder of Noralco Corp., the company that coincidentally led demolition of the building, and Ben Forman, 85, of Oakland.

Eric S. Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives at the Heinz History Center, led the careful removal of the items found in the cornerstone. According to Feige, the synagogue will most likely donate the historic items to the archive at the Heinz History Center, and the cornerstone could be incorporated into a display at the synagogue when it reopens.

“I’m giddy,” Feige said. “I find it very exciting. I’m a bit of a geek about this kind of stuff. The pickle pin is fabulous. I think that was an ingenious and creative way to put a little bit of Pittsburgh in the time capsule.”

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