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By the sweat of your brow…

Torah mantle memorializes Joseph H. Breman

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Shortly before World War I, Joseph H. Breman moved his growing family to Siberian Avenue in Leechburg, Pa. They had been living in the Hill District, where Breman was a fruit huckster. In Leechburg, he started a small produce store that evolved — or “pivoted,” in our idiom — into Breman’s Trucking Co. and the associated West Penn Garage.

The move was a drastic change of milieu. The Hill District had thousands of Jewish families and all the amenities associated with such a homogenous population. Leechburg had 63 Jews in 1927 and only 55 by 1940, according to the American Jewish Yearbook.

For those two editions, the Yearbook’s statistical department attempted to survey the population of every Jewish community in the United States. It’s a fair bet Breman filled out the survey sent to Leechburg. It’s also safe to assume that some of the population loss can be traced to his family: younger relatives who left town once they came of age.

Some time after Breman died in 1944, his family commissioned a parochet in his memory. It covered the ark of the Kiski Valley synagogue. This unnamed synagogue — a shtiebel, really — occupied the second floor of Rubin’s Department Store in Vandergrift. It was a schoolhouse and a place to have a minyan when someone needed to say Kaddish.

Unable to afford anything fancy, the Jewish community had hired a local carpenter to build the ark. A cantor was also too expensive, so they hid a turntable behind the ark and played chazunnus records. For big events, like the High Holidays or the occasional bar mitzvah, the community rented out the local VFW Hall, Sons of Italy Hall or Marconi Club, and then a few guys would have to lug the ark down the steep steps of the store.

Lugging is the only way small communities survive. Every second of Jewish life in the Kiski Valley depended on the Bennetts, Bremans, Brauns, Coopers, Gordons, Millers, Morrissons, Rubins and others. Expenses of time and effort mattered more than money.

The Jewish community of the Kiski Valley faded in the early 1960s. No one knows what happened to the ark. Larry Rubin donated the Torah to the Kollel Jewish Learning Center in 1993. The parochet followed the Bremans and a few other Kiski Valley families to Beth Jacob Congregation in New Kensington. It covered the ark in the weekday chapel.

New Kensington had one of the larger small-town Jewish communities in this area, boasting 735 people at its peak. But it, too, eventually shrank. It merged with the once mighty B’nai Israel of East Liberty in 1995 to form Adat Shalom in the North Hills.

About a decade ago, someone at Adat Shalom found the parochet and contacted Joseph E. Breman, a grandson of the Leechburg pioneer. The younger Breman had grown up in Leechburg but was by then living on a small ranch outside Grand Junction, Colorado.

He had the parochet sewn into a Torah mantle, sized to fit to an unusually tall scroll that had been salvaged from a Jewish community in Europe after the Holocaust. The scroll now fills the ark at Congregation Ohr Shalom, Grand Junction’s only synagogue. Each time it is brought out for kol nidre, Breman reflects on his roots in the Kiski Valley.

Breman’s family and friends had been skeptical of his move out west. But one year, his father, Theodore Breman, visited for Rosh Hashana. Services were held in a large room that doubled, at the time, as a Montessori. “When services were over, you picked up the books and you put them away,” the younger Breman recalled in an oral history. “And you took the chairs, and you folded them, and you put them away. Because tomorrow it’s going to be a Montessori school. My father started to cry. Because it was a mirror image of what happened at the VFW in Leechburg. You put the books in a box that you were going to take away. You fold up the chairs, because they belong to the VFW. And you leave. He looked at me and he said, ‘Joe, if I was 10 years younger, I’d be living here.’” pjc

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at eslidji@heinzhistorycenter.org or 412-454-6406.

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