Prior to 1880, the Jewish community of Pittsburgh consisted mainly of immigrants from Germany, who established the city’s earliest synagogues. Rodef Shalom, one of the first reform Jewish synagogues in the country, was established in 1856, and the conservative Tree of Life congregation was established in 1864.
1880 marked a turning point for immigration in general, and Jewish immigration to Pittsburgh followed the trend. A large wave of pogroms broke out over Eastern Europe in the 1880s; from the assassination of the Russian Czar to rumors of blood libel, Jews were scapegoats for many of the hardships facing Europeans at the time. After centuries of persecution, Jews, like other Europeans, saw the success of their brethren who had immigrated, and sought the promise of a life without limitations in America.
“An affront to civilization, a turning back of the hands of the dial of national progress.”Description of the pogroms in Russia during a relief meeting in Pittsburgh in 1881.
An even larger migration took place between 1903 and 1907, catalyzed by Russian and Polish pogroms that were more violent than ever.
The journey included three critical stages: the movement, often illegal, from home to a safe embarkation port; the actual voyage; and the reception in the New World.
It took effort and time, and often large sums of money, to leave or be smuggled out of Europe. Most immigrants traveled lightly, and often traveled in filthy steerage/third class ship conditions. When immigrants first arrived in the United States, usually in New York, they were met by members of an aid agency, such as HIAS (Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society), which provided temporary aid. From there, immigrants would move on to cities and towns throughout the country, including Pittsburgh.