PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — May is Jewish American Heritage Month, the perfect occasion to share the story of a young woman from New Jersey who came to Pittsburgh to find her Jewish roots – and has never left.
She found those roots not in the city’s Jewish hub of Squirrel Hill, nor in any other city neighborhood. Instead, the story of her ancestors was in one of the many former steel towns that were once home to thriving Jewish communities.
“I can walk you down this whole block and I can point out to you a number of homes that had Jewish families in them, my own family included,” said Tammy Hepps while taking a stroll down East Ninth Avenue in Homestead.
It’s a walk she has taken many times — at first, only in her imagination.
As a child growing up in New Jersey, her father’s colorful stories of growing up in Homestead, and his tales of the major role her Hungarian immigrant great-grandfather played in building a Jewish community there, had a profound impact on her.
She felt driven to come to Homestead but not just for a stroll.
Hepps began digging into the records held at the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center, and she started assembling the pieces of her, and Homestead’s, Jewish history dating to the 1880s.
It became a passion as she located the synagogue her great-grandfather helped build, still standing on Eleventh Avenue but since converted to a church, and as she explored the cemetery where so many members of her family’s previous generations rest.
Having moved to Pittsburgh to continue her research, she now shares what she’s learned on a website, in speeches and on walking tours.
“These are places where our families began their American journeys,” says Hepps. “They learned how to be American surrounded by people who are quite unlike them, who came over with the prejudices that were well developed in Eastern Europe. And we shouldn’t forget where we came from. We shouldn’t forget that we were part of communities like these. We shouldn’t forget that that’s what shaped the early generations of our families.”
Her mission is to celebrate and preserve those legacies but with clear eyes.
“I’m one of the people who’s trying to take the best lessons from the past, but Homestead was an incredibly antisemitic place,” Hepps said. “Kids who walked by that church would get beat up by other kids. I have oral histories of kids who grew up in this town remembering being called different kinds of Jewish slurs.”
Over the decades, Homestead’s Jewish community, along with those in other Mon Valley towns, began to shrink and consolidate across the Mon, in Squirrel Hill.
“When we look at why Jewish people left Homestead, there are a lot of different reasons,” says Hepps. “But it was a lot easier to be Jewish across the river where there were a lot more Jewish people and where the numbers meant you were less likely to get beaten up. So that’s part of the legacy of places like this, too.”
As Hepps puts it, “We must rediscover the past – not just of our own ancestors, but of their whole communities – to inspire how we live today.”
You can see much more of her genealogical research at her website here.