L’chaim on a Hilltop: Jewish Holy Houses in the Hill District (Part I)

Former House of the Hebrew Book, now Blakey Program Center, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Former Hebrew Institute, now Blakey Program Center, Hill District

Before Squirrel Hill was the center of Jewish life in Pittsburgh, that designation went to the Hill District, specifically the lower Hill a.k.a. “the big empty lot where the Civic Arena used to be.” Not a ton remains, but then again, maybe more than we expected. There are a couple really spectacular examples that we visited in our Memorial Day weekend travels.

First up is the former Hebrew Institute, now the Blakey Program Center, on Wylie Avenue. A beautiful (exactly) one hundred-year-old red brick building with an ornate front portico that’s been kept in terrific condition. It spent nearly sixty years as the Kay Boys Club/Kay Program Center and is now a community center that is part of the Hill House Association.

Cornerstone from way back in 5675, Blakey Program Center, Hill District

Cornerstone from way back in 5675

I love that the cornerstone was set with both Hebrew and Gregorian calendar years. The original institutional name has been updated to its current purpose, but executed nicely–I imagine this is no small feat in a set block of stone.

Former synagogue, now Zion Hill Full Gospel Baptist Chuch, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Former Congregation Kaisor Torah Synagogue, now Zion Hill Full Gospel Baptist Chuch, Hill District

On the corner of Webster and Erin Streets sits the large cube of a building that used to be the Congregation Kaisor Torah Synagogue (although you wouldn’t know it from the defaced cornerstone) and is now Zion Hill Full Gospel Baptist Church. A hand-painted alternate cornerstone also shows evidence that the building served as an A.M.E. church somewhere in the between time.

The big building has clearly seen better days as many of the windows are knocked-out, others replaced by plywood including the huge Star of David-shaped circular windows on the third floor of both the east and west sides. On its Erin Street face, the building shows evidence of removed staircases and stair rooflines (a mirrored set still stands on the other side). But the trees and sidewalks are looking good, and this heathen can testify that he heard a Zion Hill preacher doing the same to a rapt congregation inside last Sunday morning.

Cornerstone for former synagogue, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Kaisor Torah Synagogue: a less artful updating of the original cornerstone

Large Star of David synagogue window, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Kaisor Torah Synagogue (window detail)

These first two buildings were all The Orbit was aware of going into this piece, but combing through some old maps of the Hill District turned up a bunch of other things that we’ll be back to check out. So, you know, don’t touch that browser–stay tuned for the exciting sequel.

6 thoughts on “L’chaim on a Hilltop: Jewish Holy Houses in the Hill District (Part I)

  1. ericlidji says:

    The Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center holds collections for both of these institutions. http://www.heinzhistorycenter.org/collections/rauh-jewish-history-program-and-archives

    The first building is the Hebrew Institute. You can learn more about it here:

    And you can see some photographs of its activities here:

    The Hebrew Institute moved to Squirrel Hill in 1943 and closed in 1991.

    The second building is Kether Torah Congregation. You can learn more about it here:

    The congregation still exists. It moved to Squirrel Hill in 1957.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dov Bloom says:

    The picture you translated as ‘house of the Hebrew book’ is incorrectly translated, it simply means ‘Hebrew School’. The building housed the Hebrew Institute which later was for many years in Squirrel Hill on the NW corner of Forbes Av and Dennistion, then on the NE corner.


    • Will says:

      Thank you! If memory serves, “House of the Hebrew Book” actually came from a plaque on the building itself (Pittsburgh Orbit definitely didn’t do any translating!). But I confirmed with a 1929 map that it was indeed the Hebrew Institute, at least at that time. The post has been updated.


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