CARNEGIE, Pa. — The lone window in Rick D’Loss’ office at Congregation Ahavath Achim looks onto Main Street and the abandoned, peeling front of the Main Hotel.
“This is such an ideal location,” D’Loss, president of “The Carnegie Shul,” as its members affectionately know it, said about downtown Carnegie. “It should be booming.”
D’Loss is now in a position to do something about it. Last week, the voters of Carnegie put him on the Borough Council. D’Loss believes he is the first Jew to sit on the panel.
And he believes the futures of the borough and of the congregation are intertwined.
“If the shul’s going to be successful, the town’s got to be successful,” D’Loss said.
It’s a Monday, just after lunch, and the synagogue is as empty as the streets downtown.
Midday weekday synagogue activities belong to children: religious school, pre-school, day care. And at 52, D’Loss calls himself “The Kid” of the Carnegie Shul; his youngest daughter, Melissa, was the last b’nai mitzvah among the membership. That was 1996.
D’Loss believes Carnegie could be ideal for families; he called it the only community outside of Squirrel Hill where homes, shops and a synagogue sit within a few blocks.
But for the past decade or so, he said, Ahavath Achim has run up against a catch-22: families have been reluctant to join the congregation because it doesn’t have a religious school, but it will never have a religious school without a critical mass of children.
An improved city could break that cycle, he said.
Carnegie and Ahavath Achim have parallel histories.
The original members founded the congregation within a few years of the incorporation of the borough in 1894. Jews came to Carnegie for the same reason they came to other western Pennsylvania communities: to start businesses that catered to steel workers.
By 1927, between 300 and 500 Jews lived in Carnegie, according to “From Shtetl to Milltown,” an account of Jewish communities in the region around the turn of the century. In the 1950s, Ahavath Achim made the two big shifts of many formerly Orthodox congregations: allowing members to drive to services and letting men and women sit together. By the mid-1960s, Ahavath Achim served around 100 families.
With early 1960s bankruptcy of Superior Steel — the main employer — Jewish businesses lost customers and Jews by and large left Carnegie. (Today, D’Loss believes he is one of only a dozen Jews still living in the borough, about the size of the original 1896 community.)
But Jews didn’t leave the congregation to the same degree.
Today, Ahavath Achim is “a magnet shul,” D’Loss said. Most of its members drive in from surrounding communities: Mt. Lebanon, Collier, even Steubenville.
The congregation is old. (“Yahrzeits are very important here,” D’Loss said, showing off the new plaque in the sanctuary.)
But it’s also stable. For each elderly member that passes, a new elderly member appears, attracted to the small size of the congregation and the traditional nature of its services. It’s a model without much precedent in the region.
But that model, D’Loss said, relies too heavily on a core group of devoted individuals, people like himself or like Stanley Roth, the past-president known as the congregation Nasi, or “prince,” who held leadership positions for 63 years until he died this past June.
“Everything is good today, but is it going to be good 15 years from now?” D’Loss said.
D’Loss grew up in Carnegie, but not in Ahavath Achim.
His great-grandfather, Sam Kreisberg, was an outspoken communist who immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1900, ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Atlanta in 1912 on the Socialist Party ticket and moved to Carnegie in 1920 to open Universal Dry Cleaners.
While communism led Kreisberg to try and “repair the world,” it had no room for God or religion, and therefore D’Loss didn’t become active in congregational life until he moved his family to Michigan in the late 1980s. They joined Ahavath Achim in 1991, when he returned to southwestern Pennsylvania and bought a house in Carnegie.
D’Loss is an aviation consultant, self-employed after decades in the industry. On his desk sits a US Airways Airbus A330 drink cozy, a souvenir from his time with the airline.
During the bankruptcy and merger at US Airways several years ago, D’Loss faced a decision: whether to stay in Carnegie or follow the company where it led him.
“I really didn’t see myself leaving,” he said.
D’Loss said people have been asking him to run for office for years. With a vacancy on the council this year, he finally decided to do it. Carnegie, a town of 8,400 according to the 2000 census, didn’t turn out en mass for elections. He got on the council with 510 votes.
But D’Loss believes his election is part of a call for change in Carnegie, which has seen a complete turnover of the council and the mayor’s office over the past two election cycles.
D’Loss’ politics don’t entirely match his great-grandfather’s. He is a member of the Social Democrats-USA, the pro-Union, anti-Communist political group that supported the Iraq War in 2003 and maintains support for Israel. (But D’Loss and SD-USA distance themselves from the neo-conservatives that grew out of the party in the 1980s and 1990s.)
D’Loss casts a wide net of blame for the woes of Carnegie, from “decades and decades of mismanagement and corruption,” to the bankruptcy of Superior Steel, to suburban culture that drew families further into the South Hills, to a 2004 flood that hit nearly every downtown business, (but thankfully stopped a few blocks away from the synagogue).
His platform for addressing those issues starts in familiar places: costs and revenues.
He believes the borough uses property taxes as a bank account. He thinks “legacy waste” burdens borough operations with costs. He believes downtown commercial property owners — emboldened by Carnegie’s prime location — hang on to blighted properties in the hopes that developers will make big offers, offers he doesn’t believe are realistic.
His wants to see stable taxes, cost cutting and — for commercial property owners that don’t redevelop abandoned lots and empty buildings — the threat of eminent domain.
“We’re not talking about taking people’s houses off them,” he said.
While the congregation is stable but charting its own course, D’Loss sees a model for Carnegie: East Liberty, another neighborhood also hit hard by the demise of the steel industry and a series of bad planning decisions now inching toward recovery.
Can Carnegie pull it off?
“I’m confident we can,” D’Loss said.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1006.)