Rodef Shalom Congregation
The mission of Rodef Shalom is to build and sustain a vibrant Reform Jewish community. We guide and support our members in living full Jewish lives throughout the lifecycle, based on Torah (study), avodah (worship) and gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness). We strive to be a national and international leader in Jewish thought and practice.
The founders of Rodef Shalom Congregation were among the first Jews to become permanent residents of Pittsburgh. In the 1840s, Pittsburgh was both a starting point for journeys to the Western frontier and a growing industrial center for the East. Our young founders came here to start businesses, families, and a new Jewish community. They established a cemetery and burial society in 1847 and participated in early attempts to build a congregation in a community fractured by differences of ethnicity and religious practice.
On November 9, 1856, the charter of Rodef Shalom formally established both a religious congregation and a day school with instruction in Judaism and general branches of knowledge. From those early times, the members of Rodef Shalom have been active in educational, philanthropic, and service work in the Jewish community and the wider Pittsburgh community.
In 1862, Rodef Shalom built the first synagogue in Western Pennsylvania, in downtown Pittsburgh. The congregation joined the Reform Movement in the 1860s and grew to become one of the largest and most active Reform congregations in the United States. The Pittsburgh Platform, which established the progressive nature of Reform Judaism, was hosted by Rodef Shalom in 1885.
Dynamic rabbinic leadership and enthusiastic lay participation have strengthened Rodef Shalom throughout its history. When Rabbi J. Leonard Levy arrived in 1901, for example, construction of the second Rodef Shalom building was just finishing, but it was soon outgrown when the congregation doubled in size during Rabbi Levy’s first year. Sisterhood (now Women of Rodef Shalom) was established in 1906, resulting in an explosion of educational and community programming. Brotherhood came along a decade later. During the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, Rabbi Levy and many Rodef Shalom members were involved in a wide range of social reform issues.
Moving from downtown to a location near the new cultural center of Oakland and the eastern residential neighborhoods of Shadyside and Squirrel Hill offered another opportunity for congregational growth, and the majestic 1907 sanctuary designed by Henry Hornbostel provided the perfect architectural framework. The Falk Memorial, built in 1911 and active until 1930, added recreational and athletic capacity with its swimming pool and gymnasium.
During the rabbinate of Samuel H. Goldenson, from 1918 to 1933, Rodef Shalom was one of the first congregations to democratize participation in religious services by abolishing an assigned-pew system that was based on a tiered payment structure.
Rodef Shalom’s growth continued with the arrival in 1934 of Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof, who was a leading scholar in popularizing Biblical literature and in reinvigorating the study of Jewish law within a Reform context. He served as President of both the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and he also conducted, for many years, an extremely popular book review series that was open to the whole Pittsburgh community.
Innovation continued with the opening of the Biblical Botanical Garden, the creation of Rabbi Walter Jacob and his wife, Irene Jacob. Rabbi Jacob, a past president of the CCAR, is the founder of the Solomon B. Freehof Institute of Progressive Halakhah and of the Abraham Geiger College, established in 1999 as the first rabbinic seminary in Continental Europe since the Holocaust.
Through the initiatives of Rabbis Marc N. Staitman (1997-2003), Aaron Bisno (2004-present), and Sharyn Henry (1999-present), as well as lay-led activities, Rodef Shalom has continued an active involvement in social justice issues on the local, national, and international levels. Worship services in a variety of styles offer congregants the opportunity for meaningful engagement with Jewish ritual practices.
In 1938, Rodef Shalom built a large education wing to house the growing number of children enrolled in the Religious School. That space is now shared with the Rodef Shalom Family Center and Preschool, which provides a nurturing and safe environment for the healthy development of each child within a framework of Jewish values. Another addition, in 1954, created a social hall that has become a gathering place for community meetings and social events. The large space gives Rodef Shalom the opportunity to partner with other organizations for events such as Empty Bowls, which raises funds and awareness to reduce food insecurity, and Outrageous Bingo, which supports fun and fundraising for the LGBTQIA community and other philanthropies. Recent renovations have opened up our physical spaces to new partners and community organizations by providing greater accessibility while maintaining an appropriate level of security.
Rodef Shalom Congregation’s long history and its architecturally significant building complex have laid the foundations on which the 21st-century congregation is building its own experience of Jewish community life. Diverse and interactive opportunities for worship, service, and study provide individuals and families new ways to engage with Jewish traditions and values while creating the future together.