“The archetypal small-town Jewish experience in the United States is Western Pennsylvania,” said Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives.
Indeed, despite comprising only 1-2 percent of the nation’s Jewish population, the region contained roughly 10 percent of the nation’s small-town Jewish communities, or those between 100 and 1,000 Jewish residents, in the early 20th century, according to historian Lee Shai Weissbach.
Due to a confluence of factors from geographic to financial small-town Jewish communities sprouted up around Pittsburgh, and flourished.
“Pioneering Jews came in numbers, coinciding with the immigration of Polish and Russian Jews to America,” noted Barry Rudel, development director of Temple Sinai, one of 40 people to take a tour last week of Johnstown, one of those small-town communities. Over time, many of these communities began to disappear.
Johnstown, a former industrial hub known by many as the victim of a devastating 1889 flood, exemplifies these trends. What was once a thriving municipality of over 67,000 — in the 1920s — has become a depressed post-industrial community of 20,000, nearly 40 percent of whom live below the poverty line.
Yet hope is not absent. Because of the affluence of the Jewish community, there remains a synagogue, Beth Sholom, with a full-time rabbi and numerous educational opportunities for its members.
Replete with two sanctuaries, a ballroom, two bowling alleys, and an abundance of stained-glass windows, the building could easily serve a community two or three times the size of Johnstown’s. Yet the congregation rarely reaches a minyan except on the High Holidays, said congregation president Lawrence Rosenberg.
“I’d give up a little bit more money for a couple more Jews,” he quipped.
Nonetheless, Rosenberg said the congregation sits on a substantial endowment due to the relative wealth of its past congregants.
And they have attempted to put the money to good use. According to Rosenberg, the congregation sponsors biannual trips to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., for Jewish and non-Jewish members of the community.
In addition, Rosenberg said he has an open offer to any congregation member who would like to travel to Israel: a $2,500 stipend.
“I’ve never heard of another synagogue who would do something like that,” he said.
A rich supply of relics across the city reflects Jews’ long history in the region and their influence on business, politics and daily life. Alongside the surrounding community, they have prospered — coinciding with the rise of the iron and steel industries — and endured tragedy, losing 24 members in the 1889 flood that killed 2,200 Johnstown residents in total.
Westmont, a hilltop town overlooking the city center, has long been the home of most of Johnstown’s Jews. On the town’s main road, Luzerne Street, the original residence of one of the first Jewish inhabitants of the town still stands.
Grandview Cemetery, one of the largest cemeteries in Pennsylvania, contains four Jewish sections, with roughly 1,200 graves in total. Sitting next to the oldest Jewish parcel is the “Unknown Plot,” which contains the remains of 777 unidentified victims of the flood. Most likely, some of those victims are Jewish.
Around the world, Johnstown’s Jews have made an impact as well.
The United Jewish Appeal — an umbrella organization that raised money for Jewish settlers in mandate Palestine and, later, in the State of Israel — found Johnstown’s Jews to be particularly philanthropic. From 1945 to 1970, the small community donated nearly half a million dollars to the Appeal.
In fact, the generosity of the community was virtually unparalleled: About .2 percent of all donations to the State of Israel came from Johnstown, despite its relatively miniscule population, according to Rosenberg. Between 1945 and 1952, Johnstown’s Jews donated at the highest per capita rate of any Jewish community in the United States.
Zionist causes were not the only beneficiary of Johnstown’s munificence: Johnstown itself was in large part propped up by the money and efforts provided by local Jews.
“Johnstown is far better off because of its Jewish community,” Rudel argued. “The Community Arts Center, Bottle Works [Ethnic Art Center], the children’s museum, the local library, a park in Barnesboro, the train station, have all been created or sustained by members of the Jewish community.”
Participants of the June 14 tour said they came away with a better appreciation for community dynamics.
“It was uplifting to see a beautiful place like that for the people in Johnstown,” said Sil Moritz, who went on the trip. “It looks like a very viable place.”
Shirley Goldstein, who leads a committee that organizes outings from Temple Sinai, said Johnstown was chosen as the destination for the trip because of its “Jewish roots.”
“It’s in our own backyard,” Goldstein noted. “It’s historic, it’s Jewish.
“There are people…who said to me, ‘Shirley, I’m so glad you’re doing this. I’ve never been to Johnstown,’” she added. “They’ll go on the Queen Mary, they’ll go to Europe, but they won’t go to [Johnstown].”
Despite the diminishing Jewish presence in Johnstown — down from more than 3 percent of the total population in the 1960s to less than .5 percent today — signs of the community’s influence remain. Flying high above the city, alongside roughly two dozen others, the Israeli flag casts a long shadow on not only Johnstown, but Western Pennsylvania at large. PJC
Jonah Berger can be reached at email@example.com.