“Life is a tragedy full of joy,” the celebrated novelist Bernard Malamud once stated. As Jews, we are all too familiar with happiness and pain sharing space on the same stage.
This diametrically opposed pairing hit home this past weekend with the closing of my synagogue, Beth Israel of Latrobe, and the celebration of my daughter’s bat mitzvah. Although the closing of our shul was planned, we were all hoping for a last-minute “Hail Manny” to save the day.
The closing of Beth Israel leaves only one remaining Jewish house of worship in Westmoreland County, Congregation Emanuel Israel in Greensburg. Where once there were shuls spread throughout the region — Jeanette, Connellsville, New Kensington, Mount Pleasant and two in Greensburg — now there is only one.
As economies shifted, consumers opting to frequent chain stores and malls, the Jewish merchants suffered. And as economies shifted, so did demographics. Adding to the Jewish exodus were parents convinced a better life for their offspring resided beyond their respective borders. This shift has been replicated many times throughout small-town America for over 50 years.
As our community aged, I taxied more and more of our residents who moved to Pittsburgh in their golden years. Electing to downsize and move closer to family and/or hospitals was a difficult yet essential transition for these residents. The weekly shul treks back to Latrobe helped cushion their loss.
I know driving on Shabbat is frowned upon by many due to halachic law. I, however, and all who I weekly schlepped, believe that making a minyan trumps halachic law.
Our congregation adapted as we aged. We installed a bannister to get to the bima. In recent years, I found myself rushing through prayers where standing was mandated. Being the most virile member of our tiny minion, my record of 500 consecutive hagbahs (lifting of the Torah), alas, shall never be broken
Beth Israel never had a rabbi, cantor or any professional. We were a “do-it-yourself” congregation, where we call upon the talents and dedication of its members to contribute. Part of our shul’s 100-plus-years longevity was due to the fact that every member was vested in its success.
From kosher hot dog dinners to communitywide Yom Hashoah services, from rummage sales to Hebrew school, the congregants of Beth Israel made a lasting spiritual impact. Members such as Mickey Radman, Mark Kessler, Art Goldman, Mort Sevel, Bill Dunhoff, David Balk, Bob Mendler, Jeanette Wolf and many more should be praised for adding vibrancy to a shrinking community.
Beth Israel provided a town square of sorts to gather, discuss and sometimes mourn over the issues impacting Jews throughout the world. Being surrounded by Christian neighbors most of the week, our weekly services served as a haven where we all felt free to express our fears, frustrations and pride about being Jewish in a gentile community.
The purpose of a congregation is to render a sense of belonging, spiritual wellness and meaning into our hectic and often bleak lives. We can rejoice that Beth Israel of Latrobe fulfilled this promise without an endowment or rabbinic leader, but with much compassion, cooperation and devotion for over 100 years.
M. Brian Balk is a Pittsburgh resident and businessman.