From Generation to Generation
In a recent feature story, Squirrel Hill Magazine recounts the unique history of the CDS building, where "across the generations, children have been lovingly educated at a school deeply rooted in religious tradition and strongly committed to the Squirrel Hill neighborhood."
The journey began in 1972 when a group of parents first organized Community Day School as a non-denominational Jewish day school, located in the old Hebrew Institute building situated at the corner of Forbes and Denniston avenues in Squirrel Hill. Beginning with only grades K through 3, under the leadership of principal Jackie Tucker, one grade was added each year through the 8th grade.
Natalie Berman served as principal from 1986 until 1998. In 1988, the school, with an enrollment of 77 students, merged with South Hills Solomon Schechter School, which had 30 students. In 1991, this new school became part of the Jewish Education Institute, a citywide umbrella agency for Jewish education. This time period also saw tremendous growth in enrollment capping at more than 390 students. More space was needed as the school grew, and many different sites in Squirrel Hill were considered.
A new home
With the intent of building a nursing home, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh purchased the property located at the corner of Beechwood and Forward avenues, which had housed St. Philomena's Church and School since 1922. Here is when the remarkable parallels began for these two educational institutions.
St. Philomena's was founded as the first German Catholic congregation in the greater Pittsburgh region during the early waves of European immigration to the United States. First located temporarily in a building in the Strip District, the parish decided to purchase the property at the corner of Forbes and Beechwood, which had been a coal mine and later a farm. John T. Comes, an accomplished Gothic Revival architect in Pittsburgh, was commissioned to design the new church and parish buildings. The school was completed during the summer of 1922, and the rectory was finished in 1923. On September 5, 1923, 73 students taught by four Notre Dame nuns began their education at the school. Within 16 years, the student body grew to 369.
Over the years, two additional stories were added to the building, a new wing was designed, and a playground, constructed by the parish Men's Club, completed the structure. The school and parish flourished with the guidance of the Redemptory Fathers and Notre Dame Sisters. As many as six masses were held every Sunday. In October 1989 the parish's 150th Jubilee Mass was said at St. Philomena's.
However, the neighborhood demographics had begun to change with fewer families affiliating as members of the parish, and enrollment in the school dropped. The school had to close at the end of the 1990 school year, and the church was deconsecrated on June 30, 1993.
Neighbors of the former St. Philomena's voiced objections to the use of the site as a nursing home, urging that it remain as an educational facility. With the help of late City Councilman Bob O'Connor and Mayor Tom Murphy, permission was granted to the Jewish community to renovate the old Catholic school into the new home of the Jewish Education Institute. The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh deeded the property to the JEI and also contributed approximately $3 million from the Renaissance campaign fund to renovate and bring the building up to code. For the better part of a year, interrupted only by the filming of the remake of the movie “Diabolique” starring Sharon Stone, the architectural firm of MacLachlan, Cornelius & Filoni worked on the property. Natalie Berman oversaw the transformation. New classrooms were created, the gymnasium was rebuilt, a kosher kitchen was constructed, windows were replaced, and all new mechanical and electrical systems were installed. A media center including a library and two computer labs was added. The former sanctuary, where masses were once held, now houses the Holy Ark where the school's Torah scrolls are stored and where most religious services are conducted. The Middle School acquired its own space on the third floor, giving the older students more autonomy and independence. On August 30, 1996, history happily repeated itself as once again a group of parents built two playgrounds funded by the school's Parent Teacher Organization. With the opening of its doors on September 3, 1996, once again a group of children were lovingly educated at a school deeply rooted in a religious tradition and strongly committed to a neighborhood in Pittsburgh.
Continued growth and independence
In 1998, Frank Smizik brought his extensive experience as a public school teacher and principal to Community Day School. He added an interscholastic sports program and other after-school extracurricular programs, while continuing to improve the academic curriculum of the school. In 2002, JEI board member Dr. Lois Weinstein chaired the CDS Advisory Committee, which began to explore a return to independent school status. The community made a decision to separate the services division of JEI and the School of Advanced Jewish Studies from Community Day School, allowing CDS to have a small, focused board and independence. The subcommittees that she assembled began to revise the school's mission and vision statements, planned new admission and marketing materials, created an alumni association, and formulated a new development and marketing campaign. With the assistance of Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and an outside consultant, Community Day School became independent on June 23, 2004.
At the end of the 2004 school year, Frank Smizik retired, and Avi Baran Munro became the Head of School. Avi Munro has a long history with Community Day School, having served as Education Coordinator and Lower School Head for six years, and as Teacher Development Coordinator at the JEI for several years. All four of her children have graduated from CDS.
Today, Community Day School is a nurturing, academically excellent Jewish day school for the 21st century. From Early Childhood through Middle School, we inspire our students to love learning through innovative teaching methods and hands-on discovery. CDS is a welcoming community where Pittsburgh families who span the spectrum of Jewish belief and practice can learn and connect along with their children. As our students grow in knowledge from Pre-K through 8th grade, they grow as people — finding their passions, embracing their Jewish identities, and preparing for successful and meaningful lives.