Symposium Marks Centennial for Rodef Shalom, Western PA’s Oldest Jewish Sanctuary

September 25, 2007

Historians and architectural experts will discuss Rodef Shalom Congregation’s landmark sanctuary listed on the National Register of Historic Places and its founders during “Historical Symposium: Honoring Our Builders and Building” on Sunday, November 4, 2007 as part of the sanctuary’s centennial celebration and the Congregation’s sesquicentennial observances. Free and open to the public, the community-wide symposium starts at 1:00 PM, at Rodef Shalom, corner of Fifth and Morewood Avenues in Oakland.

Professor Jonathan Sarna, a Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and Director of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program will deliver the keynote address, “The Place of Rodef Shalom in the History of American Judaism.” Two panel discussions will follow. Elaborating on the Congregation’s historic building include: Eliza Smith Brown, author of Pittsburgh Legends and Visions: An Illustrated History, Charles Rosenblum, Assistant Professor of Architecture, Carnegie Mellon University and Albert M. Tannler, Historical Collections Director of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. The second panel will discuss the Congregation’s builders and early members who made significant contributions to the development of Rodef Shalom and the Pittsburgh community.

Henry Hornbostel (1867-1961) who designed the century old sanctuary is well known for his designs of many national treasures including Pittsburgh’s Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall, Pittsburgh City-County building and nearby Carnegie Mellon University originally known as Carnegie Technical Schools.

A 1907 Pittsburgh Post article wrote of Rodef Shalom: “wonder in architecture… one of the handsomest temples for Jewish worship in the country.” It further describes the building: “In design, construction and workmanship, in decorations and in every respect the fine edifice is one of the proudest creations in modern architecture and building methods, being a composite of excellence in hundreds of details.”

The sanctuary’s most distinctive feature is its dome which was constructed in the Catalan timbrel vault style, indigenous to northeastern Spain using interlocking layers of thin tiles laid in mortar to create a lightweight, strong vault without the use of wood or steel beams. The Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company, which patented the Catalan vault, often collaborated with well-known architects such as Henry Hornbostel, who used Guastavino arches and stairways in a number of his buildings including the Rodef Shalom sanctuary.

Two contemporary assessments of Hornbostel’s Rodef Shalom Temple are offered by Franklin Toker and Walter C Kidney. Franklin Toker, an associate professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University in 1980, was instrumental in obtaining the designation of the Temple Sanctuary on the National Register of Historic Places. Professor Toker is quoted in “Historic Landmark,” which appeared in The Pittsburgh Press of May 25, 1980: The Temple’s sanctuary is one of the…first products of the Beaux Art movement in Pittsburgh…popular in the United States between1900-1935.

In Pittsburgh’s Landmark Architecture (1997), Walter C. Kidney of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation– and the author of Henry Hornbostel: An Architect’s Master Touch (Landmarks, 2002) — described Hornbostel’s work on the Rodef Shalom Temple: “Hornbostel designed a quietly sumptuous interior of mahogany and gilt, focused on an ark in the Ionic order.” He went on to say, “Rodef Shalom has served two purposes well: as a dignified place of worship and as an ornament to an elegant neighborhood.”

For more information on the “Historical Symposium: Honoring Our Builders and Building” or tours of this community treasure, contact Chris Benton at 412-621-6566, or visit http://rodefshalom.org/who/history/.

The Symposium is underwritten in part by the Ruth & Bernard Levaur Contemporary Lecture Fund.

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From June 2007 through May 2008, Rodef Shalom Congregation, the oldest Jewish congregation in Western Pennsylvania, as well as the largest Reform congregation, celebrates two significant milestones: the 150th anniversary of its charter by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the 100th anniversary of its landmark Fifth Avenue building. In 1885 Rodef Shalom leaders hosted the Pittsburgh Platform where members of the national Reform movement defined its first major tenets, marking the Congregation’s historic role in the development of Reform Judaism.

Throughout its history Rodef Shalom has been dedicated to observing and teaching Jewish values through inspirational worship, an emphasis on lifelong learning, active advocacy for social justice, service to region-wide human needs, promotion of interfaith dialogue and understanding, and encouragement of the spiritual and educational growth of its young people. For more information, visit www.Rodefshalom.org.

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