Ray Cotero, 80, remembers when the Braddock neighborhood surrounding the old Agudath Achim synagogue on Talbot Street “was full of ‘-witzes.’”
“There were the Zelkowitzes, the Lefkowitzes, the Markowitzes,” recalled Cotero, who has lived in Braddock his whole life. “This was a pretty good Jewish neighborhood.”
Cotero, who is not Jewish, grew up one street over from Agudath Achim, which sold its building to a Baptist church sometime in the mid-1960s. But back in the 1940s, when Cotero was a child, he would help out the rabbi and his daughter with tasks around the building “whenever I needed a couple pennies,” he said.
“I used to help clean up the building,” said Cotero. “I remember the rabbi used to cut the chickens’ necks and stuff out in the yard.”
Agudath Achim, an Orthodox congregation, built its synagogue on Talbot Street in 1902. A second Orthodox congregation in Braddock, Ahavath Achim, was built a couple years later. The two synagogues, and a third called Sons of Israel, served a Jewish population that had grown to about 2,000 people by 1928. Braddock’s main streets were lined with Jewish businesses back then: jewelry stores, furniture stores, clothing stores. The town supported two kosher butchers, a Hebrew school that held classes at the Jewish Community Center and active B’nai B’rith and AZA chapters.
But as was the case in many small industrial boroughs in Western Pennsylvania, Braddock’s Jews began leaving for larger cities in the mid-20th century. By the 1970s, the whole town had shifted into a decline that eventually earned Braddock the state designation of “financially distressed municipality.”
The town lost 90 percent of its population, leaving it with a scant 2,500 residents. Businesses and schools were shuttered, and crime was on the rise.
Now, seemingly against the odds and 50 years later, the building that was once Agudath Achim is again owned by a Jew — Pittsburgher Evan Indianer — who has purchased and renovated the old synagogue, turning it into office space for his software business, Unicentric.
Indianer, whose business was housed in the Strip District for about 18 years, decided to look to Braddock to relocate after his wife, Adrienne, came back from an event sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh in the spring of 2014, inspired by its featured speaker, John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock.
“My wife came back from that Jewish Professionals Network meeting, and asked me, ‘Do you want to do in Braddock what you did in the Strip? You could have an impact on the community.’”
Fetterman had addressed the Jewish Professional’s Network about his work in revitalizing Braddock — work that has garnered the attention of media nationwide. Fetterman was featured on “The Colbert Report” and “Real Time with Bill Maher” and has since launched a campaign for U.S. Senate.
At the suggestion of his wife, Indianer began that night searching online for real estate in Braddock and went to look at the Unity Baptist Church the next morning. At the time, he had no idea the building was once a synagogue.
But when Indianer brought Adrienne to see the building before he made his offer, she said to him, “This reminds me of our shul in Tyler, Texas [where she grew up].”
“I came back upstairs,” Indianer said, “and I saw the Mogen Davids in the stained glass. I said, ‘I think there may have been a shul here. Maybe this is beshert.’ It made the whole thing even more appealing and intriguing — the karma of it, if you will.”
The Indianers paid $33,500 for the building about a year ago, and although the dollars it spent on renovation “are over the budget we originally had, we were able to achieve almost all the items we set out to do,” said Indianer.
As a point of reference, the congregation paid $4,000 for the lot back in 1902, and $16,000 for erection of the synagogue, according to newspaper reports at the time.
Pews were removed from the sanctuary, which now serves as a communal workspace for the coders employed to create and provide support for Unicentric’s products. The upstairs space, where the women used to sit during services, has been retooled into a conference area. The basement has been redone with new bathrooms and a caterer’s kitchen. Indianer hopes the open basement space will be used to host various community events.
“Adrienne and I are very involved in the Jewish community,” noted Indianer, who counts vice chair of the board of The Jewish Chronicle among his community titles as well as chair of the Federation’s Community Scorecard.
Now that Indianer has a presence in Braddock, it is not too farfetched to imagine a Jewish event again held in what was once Agudath Achim.
There are some who still remember when that was the norm.
“The shul used to be mobbed for services,” recalled Jimmy Weiser of Squirrel Hill, who grew up at Agudath Achim and whose father served as its president. “There were at least 400 families there.”
Weiser, 84, who currently manages the 850 graves of the Agudath Achim cemetery, praised Fetterman’s efforts, but remains skeptical that Braddock, or the building that was the synagogue, will ever return to what it was “in its heyday.”
His memories are fond, though.
“When I was young, people my age used to stand outside and talk to all the girls going to shul,” he said. “We would wear our pointed shoes, and that’s what we would do most of the day.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.