Genealogist Tammy Hepps stands by the grave of her great-grandparents at the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery in West Mifflin. Created in 1896, the cemetery was purchased with the help of her great-grandfather, a founding member of the Homestead Hebrew Congregation. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

“I read about the 1892 Homestead Steel Strike in high school,” says Squirrel Hill genealogist Tammy Hepps. “Until just a few years ago, I had no idea my family had significant roots in either Homestead or that era of labor history.”

Raised in Philadelphia’s New Jersey suburbs, Hepps earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Harvard University in 2000 and worked until 2014 in New York City as a technology executive for Dow Jones, The New York Times, NBCUniversal, Barnes & Noble and other media and healthcare companies.

Today she works as a genealogist with a mission to create “usable history for families and communities.”

The effort started with a few family records and has now grown to databases listing tens of thousands of people, organizations, business records and demographic trends spanning more than a century — all of it accessible online.

Hepps has developed collaborative storytelling software, taught classes for the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, and this past spring, organized a Jewish Roots in Ukraine workshop that raised $30,000 for Ukrainian war relief efforts.

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Tammy Hepps holds up an old photo with her great-grandparents in the center. The photo also includes her father as a child along with her grandfather. Hepps’s great-grandfather was a founding member of the Homestead Hebrew Congregation, formed in 1893. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

NEXTpittsburgh: What’s the value of a community genealogy? Americans seem to be so very localized in our attitudes and outlooks.

Hepps: That localization is actually a positive. You can use genealogical methods to restore people’s sense of place in their local history, which is something they might not have nor realize is important. The goal is to reconstitute the identity of the community. Who were these people; what did they do in their social lives? Business lives? Religion, culture, sports, every facet of their community lives provides the bigger picture that explains why people came to have a special feeling about this place.

My family emigrated to Homestead in the 1880s, a town and a time a lot of historians write about. There is a tremendous amount of published scholarship, but much of it did not acknowledge that Jewish people were there or didn’t acknowledge their contributions to the town’s life. 

It’s not that I just want to put those people back on the Homestead map, I want to prove why it matters to include them, so we get the richest and most accurate sense of this very historical place. 

Tammy Hepps stands in front of the Homestead Hebrew Congregation’s memorial wall inside Congregation Beth Shalom’s building in Squirrel Hill. Her great-grandfather (listed on the wall) was one of the founders of the Homestead Congregation in 1893. The congregation moved to Squirrel Hill in 1993 after selling their Homestead synagogue, which was built in 1914. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

NEXTpittsburgh: Individual history highlights the larger group history.

Hepps: Our specific American stories have been undertold to ourselves. We think a lot more about the places our families emigrated from than what happened to them here. We don’t mine our own history for enough lessons. But genealogy gives us an approach to history that connects people from very different backgrounds.

NEXTpittsburgh: Family stories can be really exciting narratives.  

Hepps: Everyone wants to feel they came from something. They like to share their family stories, and what I can do is give them order and context and expression to become part of a larger historical narrative. I’ve always found families are generous with their stories. I hope what I give back is the family connection with the community they might never find otherwise. 

NEXTpittsburgh: What made you decide to bring your genealogy work to Pittsburgh?

Hepps: My father was raised in Pittsburgh before moving away to attend Lehigh University in Bethlehem. He told us a lot of family stories, especially about his grandfather, Bernhardt Hepps, who had come to America from Hungary in 1888 and later owned a saloon in Homestead. I was captivated hearing these vignettes about Homestead and how this mythical great-grandfather co-founded Homestead Hebrew Congregation in 1894, which lasted almost a century before closing. 

In 2010, I brought my dad to Pittsburgh to visit the Rauh Jewish Archives at Heinz History Center. That trip was a life-changing experience for me. Archivist Susan Melnick brought out 16 boxes of records from the congregation, and the first book I saw was an accounting ledger, dated 1902, that had my great-grandfather’s name and title as congregation secretary written in his signature on every page. I was elated to discover all my father’s tall tales were true! 

Driving back to New York, a thought kept nagging at me — “I’m going in the wrong direction. I’m supposed to stay here in Pittsburgh.” 

Founded in 1896, Homestead Hebrew Cemetery sits in the hills above Homestead in what is now West Mifflin. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

NEXTpittsburgh: And you moved here in 2014.

Hepps: For what I’d planned to be just a year of research. 

NEXTpittsburgh: And eight years later …

Hepps: I’m still here. Everything happens for a reason. The oldest truth in my life is that fascination with my great-grandfather and the desire to understand my family history as Jews who came to America. I feel very grateful that I’ve been able to reshape my life around this history and be of service to others who also want to know their family roots.

NEXTpittsburgh: What have you learned about Homestead as a community?

Hepps: When you look across all the steel towns in our area, there are more similarities than differences. Homesteaders have a very specific sense of themselves as playing a major role in this historical narrative of labor because they live in a place where history kept returning to them in various ways — strikes, forced dislocations, plant closings, political movements. But when you look at the stories of steel towns day-to-day, you see they were more similar to one another than they were different.

And with the Jews of Homestead, with the history of this one small community in this one small town, there are lessons that translate on a much larger scale. A community is all of its people together. The goal is to look at their collective stories and figure out what are the lessons in that, what are the lessons for anybody who looks at the history of Homestead. What were the circumstances that made people their best selves, what were the circumstances that made people their worst selves? 

Tammy Hepps replaces a stone on top of the grave of her great-grandparents at the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery. It’s a Jewish tradition to place a stone on a grave after a visit. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

NEXTpittsburgh: Your research article on Homestead native Jeff Goldblum has some interesting insights into the mid-century assimilation process in our area.

Hepps: “The Homestead Hebrew with a statue and a Hollywood Star!” His family story portrays a way of Jewish life in small-town America that doesn’t exist anymore … the last generation of Jewish kids in Homestead trying to be Jewish. A very fascinating, poignant moment in time.

NEXTpittsburgh: Do you have any tips for someone trying to start a family genealogy?

Hepps: People don’t realize how much information is hiding in plain view. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve guided someone onto a site like Ancestry.com, typed in a name and found a record that gives a detail they thought was impossible to know. You can do that in a matter of seconds. People think it’s magic, but the technology can very quickly lead us to something we thought was unknowable. 

L.E. McCullough

L.E. McCullough is a Pittsburgh musician/writer/journalist with a lifelong curiosity about who, what, when, where, why and especially how.