Temple Hadar Israel may be a tiny congregation, but it is committed, surviving despite dwindling numbers and an aging membership.
While many congregations in small towns across the country have shuttered up their synagogues in the face of membership attrition and financial challenges, the Reform/Conservative congregation in New Castle — the result of a 1997 merger — is determined to keep going for the foreseeable future.
More than 200 worshippers used to pack the synagogue in the 1960s on the High Holy Days. Now, about 50 come.
Hebrew school still meets on Sundays and during the week, but there are only six students.
Shabbat services are held every Saturday morning, and twice a month on Friday evenings.
And there is a palpable sense of pride among its members.
“My family has been in New Castle since 1903,” said Lynn Slovonsky, the historian of the congregation, who noted that during the mid-20 century, the Jewish population of New Castle numbered about 300 families. Most of the Jews there were merchants, he said.
“But the whole population of New Castle has dwindled,” he said. “It’s only about 24,000 people now, which is about half of what it was 50 years ago.”
It’s a scenario that mirrors small-town congregations across Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
“Industries used to bring people in,” said Art Epstein, chair of Temple Hadar Israel’s religious committee. “Now, there is no place to work. If there are no jobs, there are no people.”
At age 57, Sam Bernstine, president of Temple Hadar Israel, is one of its youngest members. After working in Ohio for 20 years, he returned to New Castle to be closer to his family, and help the congregation in which he was raised.
He has been working with the Jewish Community Legacy project, as well as the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, to get a plan in place to make sure the members of Temple Hadar Israel have a spiritual home as long as there are Jews in New Castle who want one.
“Now we are going to focus on quality, not quantity,” he said.
For Bernstine, the mission to keep Temple Hadar Israel going is personal.
“My parents came to New Castle in 1956,” he said. “I was born in 1956, and I lost my mother in 1967 to breast cancer. She died at 41, and she suffered for the last couple of years. But the congregants here helped my father, my mother, my sister and me. I will always be grateful for the congregants’ support.”
That support included congregants driving across town to pick up Bernstine for Hebrew school, feeding him dinner afterwards, then driving him home. Congregants prepared meals for the Bernstine family, hosted them for holiday dinners, and kept an eye on teen-aged Sam after his mother died and his father was working long hours.
When he was asked to become president, he willing took the job.
“I am doing it out of respect for my community and my congregation,” he said. “There are lots of senior citizens here, who add value to the congregation and to the local community. We need to foster that and care for that. This is my way to give back for what they did for me. I could be president for 50 years and never give back enough.”
Although the congregation is still fully functional, Bernstine has been diligent in preparing for the future and getting its affairs in order.
The congregation has been working closely with David Sarnat, president of the Jewish Community Legacy Project, which is based in Atlanta Georgia. The JCLP provides guidance to small congregations across the nation that are struggling to survive.
“The project is really a planning project,” Sarnat said, Its goal is to keep the congregations alive “as long as possible,” and to help them plan for the type of “footprint” their members want to leave on their communities after their doors close.
Of the approximately 25 communities with which the JCLP is now working, several are in western Pennsylvania, including Congregation Beth Israel in Washington, Penn., Congregation Tree of Life in Uniontown, Temple Beth Am in Monessen, B’nai Israel Congregation in Latrobe, Congregation Emanu-EL in Greensburg, and Beth Israel Center in Jefferson Hills.
“Historically, we have had a lot of Jewish communities in small towns in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio,” said Sarnat. “In almost all these communities, there has been a decline in population and a consequent diminishing of the Jewish community. It has been a convergence of demographic instances that has caused that to happen.”
In the case of Temple Hadar Israel, the JCLP has been assisting with issues related to budget, permanent cemetery maintenance, and spiritual leadership.
The congregation had a full-time rabbi, Martin Shorr, until two weeks ago, and is now moving to part-time rabbinic support.
Since then, Rabbis Howie Stein and Paul Tuchman have led Shabbat services there, and Rabbi Scott Aaron will led services for the High Holy days next month. Bernstine credited the Federation for helping to arrange rabbinic support.
“It’s business as usual,” he said. “We’re just more fiscally responsible and creative in the way we do things now. We’re moving ahead and focusing on the positive. We have quality people, even though we no longer have quantity. We’re asking them to pull together so we don’t have to close our facilities.”
Now that the congregation has made headway in improving its financial health by reducing its clergical expenses, the next step is to “look long-term toward managing the facility and the artifacts,” according to Bernstine.
“We’re very flexible and agile and willing to make changes. That’s the reality of being around tomorrow instead of being a dinosaur,” he said. “I’m really positive; I’m bullish about the future. We’re moving in the right direction.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)