When Beth Samuel Jewish Center was incorporated in 1914, the United States was still engaged in armed conflict with Native Americans, noted Karen Beaudway.
“That’s how long ago it was,” said Beaudway, president of Beth Samuel, the last remaining synagogue in Beaver County.
And although the unaffiliated congregation currently serves only about 75 family units, it is still alive and well more than 100 years later.
Current and past members of the small but vital congregation, as well as many of their children and grandchildren, gathered together on April 10 to celebrate the centennial of the Ambridge shul, which serves Jews living in Sewickley, Edgeworth, Moon, Butler and Beaver. Ambridge is located 10 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.
“We wanted to have an opportunity to get everyone back together, both current folks and those who have moved away,” said Beaudway.
The April 10 brunch was the first in a series of celebratory events that will continue throughout the year and will include guest speakers and a musical program. The congregation’s new spiritual leader, Cantor Rena Shapiro, will be formally installed as part of the celebration in May.
Five speakers addressed the approximately 100 attendees on April 10, including Sandy Zell, whose father, founding member Lou Zell, took out a second mortgage on his own home in 1963 to buy the land and building that still houses the congregation. Zell recalled that it was his mother, Sylvia, who was responsible for recruiting many of the congregation’s members by calling up the local hospital and asking for a list of doctors; those with Jewish-sounding last names would get a call and a nudge from Sylvia.
Jim Neft, the first person to celebrate his bar mitzvah in the new building and who is still a member of the congregation, also spoke at the April 10 event, Beaudway said.
Beth Samuel is the culmination of several mergers of congregations that were once located in the greater Beaver County area, according to Gail Murray, Beth Samuel’s history chairwoman who worked on the the 100th anniversary event.
Jewish settlers began arriving in Beaver County in the mid-1800s, forming small communities and then purchasing land for Jewish cemeteries, according to Murray’s research.
“The first minyans met in members’ homes. Later, they went on to rent rooms, establish religious schools and then build modest synagogues,” Murray wrote in a short but comprehensive history of Beth Samuel and the congregations that merged into it in the last several years. “As their congregations grew, the members built the larger synagogues that we see today.”
Beth Samuel Jewish Center was officially launched in 1910 when the chapter of “Beth Schmuil Congregation” was entered into the records of the Beaver County Courts, according to Murray, and it was incorporated as Beth Samuel Jewish Center in 1914. The congregation, which was originally Orthodox, was initially housed in the old Ambridge Library.
“During the Depression members gathered in each others’ homes,” Murray wrote. “Later the congregation moved to a series of locations in rented rooms. This included the Elks Club, the Prince Movie Theater and the third floor of the building at Merchant and 6th Streets. … In 1941 they purchased their first building at 463 Maplewood Ave. The congregation grew, and in 1963, the current synagogue on Kennedy Drive was dedicated.”
When an Orthodox congregation in Coraopolis closed in the early 1960s, some of its the members left to start the Reform synagogue, Ahavath Sholom, according to Murray’s research.
“When the Jewish population in Coraopolis dwindled, the congregation merged with Beth Samuel in 1982,” she wrote.
Likewise, Aliquippa’s Orthodox synagogue, Beth Jacob, which was formed in 1909 and chartered in 1919, closed in 1959 when the Aliquippa Jewish Community Center was established, Murray wrote. “In 1970 it merged with Beth Samuel.”
Additionally, when the Beaver Valley Jewish Community Center, which was home to both Beth Sholom, a Reform congregation, and Agudath Achim, a Conservative congregation, closed, several of the members joined Beth Samuel in 2016.
“Beth Samuel’s affiliation has evolved over the years to meet the needs of its members,” according to Murray. “This included the recognition of patrilineal Jewish descent. In order to respect and meet the needs of the membership, Beth Samuel is currently an independent congregation representing a diverse Jewish community.”
Beth Samuel is intentional in trying to meets the needs of those diverse members, said Beaudway, and its Friday night and Saturday morning Shabbat services “run between Reform and Conservative in terms of style and tone. We are the only game in town, so we face different challenges than those congregations in Squirrel Hill that can have a niche.”
Most of the younger member families at Beth Samuel are interfaith, Beaudway noted, and the majority of the children in the religious school have a parent who is not Jewish.
It is apt that the congregation is called Beth Samuel Jewish Center, according to Beaudway.
“We are the center of Jewish life and Jewish social activities in the area,” she said. “We represent the full range of Jewish identity.”
Beth Samuel is “a place where we can keep our Judaism alive,” said Lauren McLeod, vice president of the congregation and membership chair. McLeod noted a variety of activities that appeal to members with different interests, from “Torah yoga” to traditional services to adult education.
While many small town congregations in Western Pennsylvania have closed in recent years or are making arrangements for imminent closure, Beth Samuel is looking ahead to the future.
“We consider this the start of our second century,” Beaudway said. “We are in a revitalization stage right now.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.