Former New York tech administrator finds passion in uncovering Homestead's Jewish history
May 24, 2015 12:00 AM
Tammy Hepps gave up a job at NBC in New York to piece together the picture of her family's and the Jewish community's legacy in Homestead. Her great grandfather helped build a synagogue, the building shown in the background, for the Rodef Shalom Congregation on East 11th Avenue in the borough. The congregation disbanded in 1993.
This is the Hepps family, circa 1913. Back row, left to right: A.C., Hazel, Olga, and Samuel W. Front row: Martin (or Herbert), Bertha, Jacob (Chick), Bernhardt and Herbert (or Martin). Boy seated in front: Maurice.
This is the family of Bernhardt Hepps, circa 1898. Back row: Abraham C.; Middle row: Berthe and Bernhardt; Front row: Olga, Hazel, and Jacob (Chick).
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Homestead’s Jewish history is absent from the town’s dominant industrial narrative. For a young woman hoping to uncover it, 16 boxes of records at the Heinz History Center changed the course of her life.
Tammy Hepps, 36, grew up in Cherry Hill, N.J., hearing her father Michael’s stories about his grandfather, Bernhardt Hepps, who died in 1949. According to Michael, Bernhardt was a leader, a pillar, a founder and builder of the congregation that established the town’s first synagogue.
At a talk at the Heinz History Center in the spring, Ms. Hepps said with a playful smile, “I got into genealogy because I didn’t believe a word my father said.”
No other relatives were dropping crumbs on a family trail, and her father’s practices didn’t point to an Orthodox grandfather. Then when she was 12, a letter arrived from a distant cousin seeking connections to a Bernhardt Hepps.
“We were the long lost branch of the family,” Ms. Hepps said.
Five years ago, she and her father visited Pittsburgh to find the proof she wanted. At the Rauh Jewish Archives at the History Center, 16 boxes provided a trove of information about the congregation whose last candles went out in 1993.
“Bernhardt showed up on every page,” Ms. Hepps said. “He really was there on the front lines of forming the community.
“Once I discovered those boxes, it changed everything. Researching Homestead became my passion.”
She had hit a career high as chief technology officer for a division of NBC in New York and was researching Homestead on the side. “Each time I headed back to New York” from visiting Pittsburgh, “I thought, ‘I’m going in the wrong direction.’ ”
When she decided to change directions, her friends said, “You have the best job of any of us,” she recounted. “You’re going to Pittsburgh? From a great job to having no job?”
Since last July, she has spent several days a week studying old newspapers, land records, city directories, photos, oral histories and other accounts of life in Homestead. She frequently visits Homestead and the Jewish cemetery in Munhall. Its 800 graves are etched with names of people she now feels she knows.
She has even attended services at the New Covenant Community Church on 11th Avenue just to experience the site of the former synagogue: “It means a lot to me that I can walk into that building.”
The Homestead congregation’s last minyan in 1993 included one of her cousins, Ms. Hepps said. “When there weren't 10 men left, they said, ‘I guess that’s it.’ ”
The thing about 16 boxes of documents is that they yield exponentially.
“Every detail unlocks more stories,” she said. “Each answer reveals a new question. I am so grateful people had the presence of mind to donate this information.”
Many times in the quiet of the archives, a detail prompts a visceral longing. “I read meeting minutes and wish I could be in that room. The description will read, ‘A long discussion ensued,’ and I think, ‘What did they say?’
“I can’t imagine ever putting this down.”
She has met people who knew her great-grandfather and grandfather, Jacob “Chick” Hepps, a beer distributor. One person remembered Bernhardt as “being strict at the shul, making the kids sit down,” she said.
Bernhardt Hepps was a teamster who delivered alcohol to businesses in a horse-driven wagon. He later opened a saloon. On the congregation’s list of expenses, his name shows up as having supplied the whiskey. His name is also on the deal to purchase the cemetery land in Munhall.
With expansion of the steel mills in the early 1940s, 8,000 people had to move from the immigrant enclaves on streets that ran to the Monongahela River. Heisel Street, which ran several blocks to Fifth Avenue, was home to many Jewish residents, and is now an unpeopled segment of its former self. Ms. Hepps believes there are no descendants from the old community still living in Homestead.
“I can’t help but wonder whether the displacement didn’t contribute to the growth of Squirrel Hill,” Ms. Hepps said.
On her site -- http://HomesteadHebrews.com -- she describes herself as a technologist, storyteller and genealogist. She has spoken at conferences throughout the nation, and to local history buffs.
“Being a genealogist, when it’s fun, is like being a detective,” she said. “I’m burning through my savings, but there is no funding for this kind of research. I do consulting work on the side, and Pittsburgh is much cheaper to live in than New York.”
In 1893, 20 families held Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in the 2nd Ward volunteer fire company. A year later, they established Homestead’s Rodef Shalom as an Orthodox congregation and built the first shul on Ammon Street. The street no longer exists and the shul was partially destroyed by arson in 1911.
In its new quarters, the congregation included most of the merchants on Eighth Avenue -- clothiers, confectioners, bakers, butchers, publicans, grocers. Of 18 charter members, Ms. Hepps has traced 12.
Meyer Grinberg’s grandfather was a peddler who opened a housewares store in the early 1900s.
“We took all our pictures to Tammy at a seminar last year,” he said. “She has found articles about my family’s reunions and my grandfather’s wedding and my grandfather’s store being held up.
“She has stimulated our family to think more about our history,” he said. “I send my kids the links she sends me and they write back, ’This is awesome.’ ”
Blair Jacobson’s grandfather was a grocer whose store gave its customers commemorative plates in 1910 with that year’s calendar on them. He met Ms. Hepps at a presentation in March and offered her the plate and family photographs.
“I always wondered what to do with the family photos,” he said. “She gave me an opportunity to preserve them.”
Ms. Hepps said the Homestead newspaper covered the dedication of the synagogue, Jewish weddings, Zionists Day at Kennywood and other events “with respectful fascination,” if occasionally embarrassing interpretations. A short article in 1900 spelled the congregation name Rudolph Schulem.
She suspects most Jews who settled in Homestead had started their lives in another, larger American city.
“Homestead was not your typical Jewish immigration story,” she said. “You could be on the Lower East Side [in New York City] and not raise a finger to support it, but the thing I love about Homestead’s Jewish story, what’s so inspiring, is that you had to be a leader or there would be no community.”
Ms. Hepps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Diana Nelson Jones: email@example.com or 412-263-1626.
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