Rabbi Moshe Russell, spiritual leader of Gemilas Chesed Synagogue in White Oak, has announced he will be leaving the congregation. He will be moving next month to Chicago, where he will assume an education position at the Veitzener Kollel.
Russell, who has been at Gemilas Chesed for 10 years, is a Chicago native.
“He got a better opportunity in Chicago, and it especially makes sense because he has family there,” said Gemilas Chesed board member Larry Perl.
Gemilas Chesed, established 133 years ago, is currently exploring options regarding its spiritual leadership moving forward.
Down now to about 50 members, the congregation’s board is in no rush to make a decision.
“We want to take our time to make the best plan,” Perl said.
White Oak, just 16 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, is a small community of about 8,000 residents, but nonetheless it is still home to two synagogues: the Reform congregation Temple B’nai Israel and the Orthodox Gemilas Chesed. White Oak also has a recently remodeled mikvah and an eruv.
About a year and a half ago, Gemilas Chesed launched a campaign to try to grow its community. That effort, which included Russell attending fairs hosted by the Orthodox Union in an effort to attract Jews to White Oak, has not been successful.
“We haven’t grown at all,” said Gemilas Chesed’s president, Gershon Guttman.
Gemilas Chesed was founded in 1886 in the nearby community of McKeesport. In 1963, the congregation moved to the large synagogue on Summit Street in White Oak, where it is still located.
The building has become too big for its current congregation, which attracts only about 20 people for a morning Shabbat service and about 75 people for the High Holidays — if members bring in family from out of town. The building has two beautiful sanctuaries, one which seats about 350 people.
Still, the congregation, which now consists mostly of senior citizens, holds weekly Shabbat services, on Friday night, Saturday morning and Saturday evening. It also holds services twice daily during the week, although getting a minyan every day is sometimes challenging.
“We do try to keep it going every day,” said Perl.
The congregation’s membership may be aging, and small in number, but those who are still affiliated are “loyal,” and its leadership wants to keep the shul in operation, according to Perl.
“We’ve got a lot of old-time members still here, we still have the core,” he said.
The process of finding a new spiritual leader is in its early stages, and various options are being explored, including hiring another full-time rabbi to replace Russell, Perl said.
The congregation also has been in contact with Chabad of Pittsburgh to explore possibilities. Although there has been “no real discussion” about Chabad establishing a full-time presence at the synagogue, “we are always looking to help,” according to Chezky Rosenfeld, director of development at Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh.
For the upcoming High Holidays, Gemilas Chesed lay leaders will conduct services.
“We want the community to know that we are still here, and we are still going strong,” said Perl. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at