Jewish communities fight the odds, keep their roots alive
Once there were hundreds of thriving small-town Jewish communities across the country. Now even the last survivors are vanishing. On Sunday, a New Light Congregation Men’s Club-sponsored bus tour of striving and shuttered synagogues in the Ohio and Beaver Valleys, organized by Rabbi Jonathan Perlman and Men’s Club president Daniel Stein, traced the significant consolidation Jewish life has been undergoing in Southwestern Pennsylvania for the past half-century.
Susan Melnick, previously of the Small Town Jewish History Project at the Rauh Jewish Archives, was the first of many local heritage experts and community members to address the 55-member tour group. After summarizing how these communities grew from the tireless efforts of immigrant peddlers-turned-merchants and later faded in the face of the region’s larger demographic pressures, she concluded, “It’s heartbreaking, but we can celebrate what they accomplished.”
The first stop was Temple Hadar Israel in New Castle. There, president Samuel Bernstine, former presidents Arthur Epstein and Carole Schwartz Cohen, and member Sybil Epstein told the history of Jewish life in New Castle from its original two congregations through their merger in 1997. The synagogue’s interior, which they proudly showed off to the group, captures this evolution in its stained glass windows and carved Lions of Judah, both reinstalled from earlier synagogue buildings, now churches, which the group also viewed.
Now just 65 members, mostly senior citizens, Temple Hadar Israel has been working with the Rauh, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the Jewish Community Legacy Project “to leave behind a footprint of our Jewish heritage and live our legacy now,” as Bernstine explained it.
“My pay is being able to speak to people like you on a day like today,” he emphasized. “It’s very meaningful for us to have you here.”
Epstein added that the congregation continues to hold services and adult education classes. The congregation sold its building in 2015 and is renting it back on a four-year lease. For now, the area’s older Jewish population remains near to a center of Jewish life.
One Hadar Israel member who appreciates the proximity is Beverly Greenberg of Ellwood City, who joined when that town’s Tree of Life congregation closed in the 1980s. She introduced the next stop on the tour, the neglected building that community erected as its first synagogue in 1910. Never home to a large congregation, the compact structure represents what even a small community could accomplish.
From there the group continued south into Beaver County, arriving first at another building whose Jewish history was also in the distant past: the former Agudath Achim in Beaver Falls, which dates to 1914 and is now part of a cabinetry workshop. Although actively used and impressive in size, the stripped-down building shares many features with Ellwood City’s, from an empty archway once occupied by the Torah ark to bricked-up windows. Greenberg and Libby Zal, a former member of Agudath Achim, told how each building’s stained glass had been carefully preserved elsewhere.
“It’s sad to see how over the years the buildings have deteriorated,” remarked Stein, reflecting a sentiment shared by the group. Both buildings had been sold in the 1950s to build modern facilities in better locations. As Greenberg and Zal narrated, these moves were born of optimism.
While Ellwood City’s building retains no Jewish markers, Beaver Falls’ still has two, small Jewish stars carved into its former front doors, which hover a few feet above the ground, the stairs long gone. The warm memories Greenberg and Zal shared restored the Jewish feeling to the spaces.
The last synagogue of the day, Beth Samuel Jewish Center in Ambridge, ended the tour on an uplifting note. As local historian Gail Murray related, over the decades Beth Samuel took in defunct congregations from Aliquippa, Coraopolis and Chippewa, most of which were themselves the result of earlier mergers, including Agudath Achim. She pointed out the yahrzeit and dedication plaques encircling the sanctuary, which told the story visually.
Administrator Barbara Wilson described how the congregation works to adapt its activities and services to a diverse membership of 85 families and growing. For the first time all day the group toured classrooms and a teen lounge.
Like many, Rich Gottfried admired Beth Samuel’s “enthusiasm and openness. They’re really showing what Judaism in this area can be.”
Two other stops on the tour — the Conway Railyard, introduced by cultural conservationist Rabbi Doris Dyen, and the Pliskover Cemetery, introduced by member Honey Sapir — filled in other pieces of the local Jewish experience.
For Sharyn Stein, her outlook throughout the trip was “up and down like a roller coaster.” In the end, she said, “I came home feeling really good about the day. People were making it work. The community was coming together.”
Rhoda Judd reflected, “It was very nice to see how a handful of people are working to keep their synagogues and Jewish roots alive with dwindling Jewish populations.”
Tammy Hepps is the founder of HomesteadHebrews.com.