From Generation to Generation
By Jennifer Bails
With its towering, gray-stone edifice set high atop Forward Avenue, many comment on the resemblance between Community Day School and the fictional Hogwarts Castle in the Harry Potter series. And while one might easily imagine a game of Quidditch being played on broomsticks outside the Gothic Revival-style building, a different kind of educational magic takes place inside the walls of CDS.
CDS Campus- Photo by Marian Lien
The journey began in 1972 when a group of parents first organized Community Day School as a non-denominational Jewish day school in the old Hebrew Institute building at the corner of Forbes and Denniston avenues. In 1988, the school merged with South Hills Solomon Schechter School, and later became part of the Jewish Educational Institute, a citywide umbrella agency for Jewish education. As enrollment grew, many different sites in Squirrel Hill were considered for expansion.
At that time, with the intent of building a nursing home, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh purchased the property at the corner of Beechwood Boulevard and Forward Avenue, which had housed St. Philomena Church and School since 1922.
St. Philomena was the first German Catholic parish founded in the Pittsburgh region, and accomplished architect John T. Comes designed the congregation’s buildings in Squirrel Hill. Notably, Comes also built St. John the Baptist Church in Lawrenceville that now houses The Church Brew Works restaurant.
In its heyday, the school and parish flourished under the Redemptory Fathers and Notre Dame Sisters, with six masses held each Sunday. But a neighborhood demographic shift led to the school’s closure in 1990, and the church was deconsecrated in 1993.
Neighbors objected to using the site as a nursing home, urging that it remain an educational facility. With the help of late City Councilman Bob O’Connor, Mayor Tom Murphy, and Mardi Isler of the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, Pittsburgh’s Jewish community obtained permission to transform the old Catholic school into the new home of the Jewish Education Institute.
The Federation deeded the property to
Renovations of the building – Photo Provided by CDS
the JEI and also contributed $3 million to renovate the building with new classrooms, a kosher kitchen, a library, two computer labs, and an updated gymnasium. The former sanctuary, where Catholic masses were held, became home to the Holy Ark, where the school’s Torah scrolls are stored and where most religious services are conducted at CDS. The Middle School acquired its own space on the third floor, and a team of parents built two playgrounds, funded by the CDS Parent Association. Renovations took the better part of a year, interrupted only for the filming of the remake of “Diabolique” starring Sharon Stone on the grounds.
At long last, on September 3, 1996, Community Day School opened in its new location, which provides the perfect environment for the unique educational experience offered at CDS. Nestled in the residential heart of Squirrel Hill, CDS is a nurturing, academically excellent Jewish day school for the 21st century for students age 3 to Grade 8. With state-of-the-art science and technology labs, a gracious library, performing arts spaces, two art studios, and a music room, students have a beautiful and inspiring space to learn and grow. A multi-purpose athletic field, vegetable gardens with Jewish holiday themes, and the seven-acre campus provide endless outdoor learning opportunities.
Keeping Tabs – Photo by Helen Wilson
The CDS campus also is the site of Gary and Nancy Tuckfelt Keeping Tabs: A Holocaust Sculpture, a Pittsburgh landmark of educational and historic significance that attracts visitors from across the world. Dedicated in 2013, the sculpture commemorates each and every one of the approximately six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. Keeping Tabs is a maze in the shape of the Star of David, constructed of glass blocks containing six million aluminum tabs from cans of soda and other foods. The tabs were collected and counted by CDS students as a way to grapple with the sheer enormity of the horrors suffered by the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis. Guided tours are available of the sculpture, which reminds us to always “keep tabs on our humanity.”
In 2013, CDS also opened an underground tunnel linking a second building on campus facing Beechwood Boulevard that once housed the rectory of St. Philomena. The CDS Annex contains administrative offices, a board room, classrooms, and a chapel. It will also be home to the bright, colorful, and spacious new classroom for 3-year-olds in the CDS Early Childhood Education program opening in the fall of 2016.
While much has changed since the castle-like building at the corner of Beechwood and Forward was first built almost a century ago, one thing has stayed the same. Across the generations, children have been lovingly educated at a school deeply rooted in religious tradition and strongly committed to the Squirrel Hill neighborhood.