In the past few months Kether Torah Congregation has lost 10 members, a pretty hard hit for a minyan that usually draws 15 to 25 people on Shabbat.
But rather than throwing in the towel, the tiny Orthodox congregation that gathers at Hillel Academy for Shabbat and holidays is energized by the challenge of growing its ranks by showing the community how much it has to offer.
Members met last month to discuss a plan of action to save the 110-year-old congregation, which moved from its previous home on Bartlett Street to Hillel Academy about five years ago.
“We are not closing down shop,” said Elan Sokol, president of the congregation.
But the loss of those 10 members — who all left Pittsburgh for work reasons — created a void along with some challenges.
“When people move, you lose a lot of the atmosphere, and you lose your friends,” Sokol said. “And financially it’s hard. When you have a shul this size and you lose that many people, I have to ask what will happen to the shul.”
Reaching out to potential new members affiliated with other congregations creates a dilemma, he said.
“We have to do outreach, but we don’t want to acquire people from other shuls,” thus leaving those shuls with fewer members, he said.
Kether Torah is worth sustaining, Sokol explained, because it provides an alternative to larger shuls in the area while offering some unique features.
“We are the only shul that uses nusach Sephard,” he noted as an example, referring to the specific liturgy employed, although he acknowledged that “not that many people need it.”
Another advantage is Kether Torah’s location, which is convenient to several senior housing facilities, Sokol said, noting that the congregation does attract a few senior citizens who have an easier time walking there than to some of the other synagogues in town.
But the most notable attribute of Kether Torah is its atmosphere, according to Sokol.
“Specifically, we’re a small shul,” he said. “The atmosphere is different. It’s ‘chilled out.’ At other places, people are set in their ways, there are lots of committees. But here, we have a laid back atmosphere. We’re less formal. During the rabbi’s speech, if someone asks a question, the rabbi enjoys that.”
The congregation is led by Rabbi Ephraim Rosenblum, with assistance from his son, Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum.
Sokol also noted the diversity of Kether Torah’s members.
“When you go in on a Saturday afternoon for mincha you see black hats, you see suits, you see blue shirts and khaki pants,” he said. “No one thinks twice about it.”
But what the members share in common is their warmth, he said.
“If we see someone in shul we don’t know, three or four people run over and invite them for a meal,” he said. “We don’t want to steal people from other places, but we do want to make it known that we are here.”
More than half of the Kether Torah regulars are in their 20s and 30s, said Sokol, who is 37. Membership dues are low ($250 a year for an associate membership), and each week the congregation provides a “really nice kiddush.”
In addition to Shabbat and holiday services, the congregation has hosted social events, including a Chanukah party and a barbeque.
The congregation’s vice president, Solomon Horvitz, 33, said he was confident that Kether Torah can be successful in bringing in new members.
“Part of what will help us is developing a solid children’s program for Saturday mornings and Saturday evenings,” Horvitz said. “I think we have what it takes. We have a lot of young people, and it’s a nice mix.”
Although he grew up attending a larger Orthodox congregation in Pittsburgh, when Horvitz returned to town after college, he tried out Kether Torah.
“The first time I went, I really liked it,” he said. “That was a wrap. It’s a very warm place, and you feel like you’re a part of it because it is so small.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.