On the block again, former synagogue building might disappear

On the block again, former synagogue building might disappear

The Congregation B'nai Israel building in East Liberty. (File photo)
The Congregation B'nai Israel building in East Liberty. (File photo)

Seeing the “For Sale” sign in front of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School on N. Negley Avenue conjures up some strong feelings for Maxine Horn — “none of them good.”

It’s not that Horn has negative memories of being inside that grand structure in East Liberty. To the contrary, her cherished recollections of growing up as a third generation member of B’nai Israel — the congregation housed there from 1923 until 1996 — are precisely why she feels so emotional about the sale.

“That building was magnificent,” she said of the synagogue designed by renowned architect Henry Hornbostel. “It had beautiful arches and stenciling on the walls, and a beautiful wooden ark that is now in storage.

“I feel sad,” she continued, “because right this minute, I can walk out of my building and see the dome of that synagogue, and I can’t see who would want to buy it and maintain it. They will probably just tear it down.”

The property is currently “under agreement,” according to Tom Conroy, the real estate agent handling the sale at Hanna Langholz Wilson Ellis. The prospective purchaser is a property developer.

“I don’t know whether the buyer plans to renovate it or tear it down,” he said.

The asking price of 327 N. Negley Ave., which has been on the market since September, is $1,750,000. B’nai Israel sold the property to the Urban League in 2001 for $670,000.

The Urban League is selling the building because the charter school has outgrown it, according to Mary Kay Filter Dietrich, the organization’s vice president for development and external relations.

East Liberty, which suffered a 40-year economic slump after a failed urban renewal plan in the 1960s, has been undergoing a renaissance since the early 2000s. Now, the neighborhood has become trendy, with anchor businesses such as Google, boutique hotels and popular restaurants. The real estate on which the former synagogue is situated consists of more than three acres of land, and the 24,000 square foot building has 14 classrooms, a gymnasium, a library, large social halls and a sanctuary which seats 1,100 people.

This is not the first time Horn has been upset by the sale of that building. She was likewise distressed when B’nai Israel first decided to move from the spot it had called home since 1923 to merge with Beth Jacob of New Kensington, and re-establish itself as Adat Shalom Congregation in Fox Chapel.

“I almost had a nervous breakdown,” said Horn. “It was almost a visceral reaction. I was so sad, but I knew it had to happen.”

Horn’s grandmother, Anna Jacobs Davis (also known as Mrs. Barnett Davis), was one of the founding members of B’nai Israel in 1911, she said.

“I remember going to services every Saturday and every holiday with my mother, and she was also president of the Sisterhood,” said Horn. “My father was the congregation’s president. I went to Sunday school there, and I remember the major fundraiser — a lawn fete — every summer. Everybody came.”

B’nai Israel was founded as an Orthodox congregation but switched its affiliation to Conservative under the leadership of Rabbi Benjamin Lichter in 1922. The congregation’s membership peaked in the 1950s, but began to decline in the 1970s as Jews started moving away from the area. By the 1990s, it became clear to congregational leadership that to remain viable, it would have to relocate.

“The demographics had changed over the years,” Horn said. “There were fewer and fewer families supporting this enormous physical complex. We had to go where the business was.”

B’nai Israel had been operating a successful nursery school, popular among many families living in the Fox Chapel area, according to Linda Levine, who was president of B’nai Israel at the time it sold its facilities to the Urban League.

“We had 30 kids in the nursery school, and 24 lived in Fox Chapel,” Levine recalled. “There was a message there. Lots of people were saying we wish you were closer to Fox Chapel.”

The preschool was the first piece of B’nai Israel to move to Fox Chapel, according to Levine, who remembered renting space from a small Catholic school for a year, then moving her preschool to one of the Fox Chapel Area School District’s buildings for a period of time.

The enrollment at the preschool swelled, and it became clear that B’nai Israel needed to make a full-scale change, Levine said.

She encountered some resistance to the move, she said, and remembered telling her congregation at a High Holiday address: “The building is not the congregation; you are the congregation, and you don’t live near the building.”

The move to Guys Run Road in Cheswick was a good one, according to Levine.  

“Our school exploded,” she said. “I was hiring teachers and teachers’ aids as fast as I could breathe. And many of the families lived very close.”

Adat Shalom currently serves about 250 families, Levine said. In its heyday, B’nai Israel was the spiritual home to twice that many.

In 1979, the B’nai Israel building received a plaque from the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation designating it as a historic landmark. It does not have a City of Pittsburgh historic designation, however, which would mandate a regulatory process for the review of all changes and alterations by the Historic Review Commission to the exterior and appearance of the building.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

read more: