Location: Rodef Shalom Congregation on Fifth Avenue in Shadyside

Featured guest: Martha Berg, archivist

3 things that surprised me:

1. Rodef Shalom Congregation built its first synagogue Downtown in 1862, which made it the first synagogue in Western Pennsylvania, located on what is now 8th Street. The second building was built on the same spot, which might have been a bad idea because Downtown was regularly flooded. The current building in Shadyside is the congregation’s third home and it was completed in 1907.

2. The sanctuary ceiling is more than 90 feet tall and there are actually two domes at the top. One is the decorative stained glass dome you can see looking up from inside the sanctuary and the other is a clear glass dome that sits about 20 feet above and is visible from the exterior. The space in between allows for cleaning the glass and doing other maintenance. Martha says she’s been up in that space once but that it’s very hard to get to and requires climbing a series of ladders.

3. Today, the sanctuary looks nearly identical to the way it looked in 1907 thanks to a restoration in the 1990s. All the pews are original and Martha even has the bill from when they were purchased.

One thing that didn’t make the final cut: There are around 1,200 seats in the main sanctuary and I asked Martha whether those seats were all regularly full on a Sabbath service back in the early 1900s. She guessed that the seats probably weren’t full every week but mentioned that in the 1930s and ’40s, Rabbi Solomon Freehof would deliver a book review from the pulpit on Wednesday mornings. The event attracted people of all faiths — Martha says her own mother used to attend — and every seat in the sanctuary would be packed for those.

Additional info: You can read more about Rodef Shalom Congregation and learn about upcoming events at the website.

Want more Yinzer Backstage Pass? Check out our visit to the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science and find out what happens in an embalming room.