Jewish small-town life has been in decline for decades. But while the communities themselves may have been fleeting, their stories, their artifacts, their recollections live on, so long as someone is there to document, to record, to preserve, to remember.
That was the premise of “Every Town Had a Community: Celebrating Jewish Life in the Small Towns of Western Pennsylvania,” a presentation held at the Heinz History Center on Sunday expounding upon findings made by the Small Town Jewish History Project.
The program was the culmination of a year spent collecting oral histories and archiving documents from synagogues that recently have closed their doors or sold their buildings.
Spearheaded by Susan Melnick, who left her 17-year position as director of the Rauh Jewish Archive to work on this project, and Eric Lidji, writer, researcher and archival consultant, the team collected 40 oral histories representing 20 Western Pennsylvania communities.
Though the project is still ongoing, Sunday’s presentation focused on the communities of Donora, Latrobe, Uniontown, Sharon/Farrell and New Castle.
Rauh Jewish Archives has been the Fort Knox Smithsonian of the Western Pennsylvania Jewish experience since 1989, carefully guarding precious relics and stories in its vaults so that they won’t escape from history or memory. But, as Lidji told The Chronicle, in recent years, they’ve noticed that there was a tipping point reached, with the Rauh receiving documents from congregations who were closing on a more frequent basis. “We thought there should be a more proactive approach or we’d get overwhelmed and miss things,” he said.
“One of the most interesting things I’ve learned is the interconnectedness of the communities with each other and with Pittsburgh, through families, through businesses, through congregational arrangements,” Melnick told The Chronicle. “In a strong sense, it was like one community.”
On Sunday, Melnick told the audience that 490 towns had a population of 100 to 1,000 Jews; 44 of those towns were situated in Western Pennsylvania, and that did not include such tiny coal towns as Nanty Glo or Gallitzen that perhaps had enough Jews to form a minyan, but not enough to be a “triple-digit” town. These figures were based on an accounting done by the American Jewish Year Book in 1927/1928.
Lidji reported that there were general similarities in the formation, growth and demise of the specific Jewish communities highlighted in Sunday’s program. For example, most Jewish settlers arrived in these towns circa the 1860s, and many started off as merchants and peddlers until they could own their own stores. By the 1870-1880s, there were enough Jews to form a minyan, eventually forming congregations. By the turn of the century, the community grew enough and had enough money to afford a modest building and hire a rabbi. They built cemeteries, religious schools and ladies auxiliaries. They struggled through the depression, experienced a post World War II boon, leading to changes and modernization, peaking in the 1960s. Paralleling changes to the economy in the 1980s and factory closures, the synagogues either closed, downsized or merged by the 1990s and 2000s.
Lidji then presented specifics about each of the featured communities, noting, for example, that Uniontown maintained two synagogues, which, despite several attempts, never agreed to merge.
He also said that Latrobe stood out from the other towns in that it never had its own rabbi, other than a brief stint by student rabbi Jacob Maza, before he left for a career in comedy, changing his name to Jackie Mason.
A projector screen showcased some visual artifacts collected during the past year, such as photos of community gatherings, copies of important letters, and interior photos of shuttered synagogues.
During their work on the project, Lidji and Melnick came across other people who were also involved in preserving pockets of Jewish life, some of whom were guests at the program. Steve Edelstein, whose maternal grandfather was “king” of the infamous McKeesport Rum Ring during Prohibition, was on hand to display the novella that this family story inspired, entitled, “The Baker of Lozin.”
Also present was Tammy Hepps, a New Yorker who moved to Pittsburgh two years ago to research the legacy of Homestead’s Jewish community, where her grandfather had grown up. “I was raised on these stories; Homestead was a faraway, fabled place, and I wanted to know more,” she said. Hepps maintains a website, homesteadhebrews.com, documenting her research to date.
McKeesport native and filmmaker Sam Zolten, now a Philadelphia resident, introduced a clip from his upcoming documentary, “Missing McKeesport,” having interviewed 140 former Jewish residents of McKeesport about the history and culture of that town. “In many ways, these stories are emblematic of the experiences of a culture that flourished in Western Pennsylvania,” he said.
Lidji said that despite these small towns having lost their Jewish presence, he does not believe that was indicative of failure.
“I believe they were tremendously successful. These Jews came to these towns as immigrants. Their biggest struggle was to survive, and in the middle of that great challenge, they managed to create and sustain these institutions for more than a century. They had no leadership training. They had no great source of wealth or scholarship. And yet they survived for more than a century. They were created to serve a certain purpose, and they served that purpose with distinction,” said Lidji.
A curated selection of their findings, including oral histories and photos, is on the Generation to Generation website at jewishfamilieshistory.org.
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.