(Editor’s note: This is the first in a continuing series of stories of synagogues that are outliving their congregations.)
Amidst the stacks of papers covering the desk of John Katz at his real estate office in North Versailles lie two large silver yads, some Torah crowns, and an ornate but tarnished Torah shield.
The Torahs to which the silver belongs are tucked away in an office cabinet.
After polishing the adornments, Katz will transfer everything back to Congregation Ahavath Achim, on Sixth Street in Braddock, in time for this year’s High Holy Days. For now, everything of value from the synagogue is in his office for safekeeping.
“I don’t leave very much in there,” said Katz, who is preserving a tradition maintained by his late grandfather, Eugene Litman, of keeping Ahavath Achim operating, albeit only two days a year.
“I worry about a fire,” he said. “And someone did steal the chairs from the bima last year.”
Congregation Ahavath Achim, founded in 1905, used to serve hundreds of Jewish families, and was one of three synagogues in Braddock. The other two — Agudath Achim, and Sons of Israel —closed their doors years ago.
Now, open only on the first day of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Ahavath Achim usually draws fewer than 40 people, many of them members of the Litman family.
Katz’s great-grandfather, Harry Litman, was one of the founding members of the congregation.
“Because we are not open year round, people have joined other shuls,” Katz said. “People come to our shul for sentimental reasons.”
Many of those who do come to worship at the now ramshackle building recall a time when Braddock was a thriving Jewish community.
“I came to Braddock in 1954,” said Abe Salem, who came to Ahavath Achim to be its spiritual leader, emigrating from Poland as a Holocaust survivor. He still leads the congregation’s High Holy Day services.
“There used to be 180 people at the shul,” Salem recalled. “This year, maybe we will have 35.”
Early in the 20th century, Braddock’s main streets were lined with Jewish businesses: jewelry stores, furniture stores, clothing stores. The town supported two kosher butchers, a Hebrew school that held classes at the Jewish Community Center, and active B’nai B’rith and AZA chapters.
“There were so many Jews in Braddock,” said Jim Weiser, who lived in Forrest Hills, but who attended synagogue at Agudath Achim — also known as the 11th Street Shul — when he was growing up. His father served as president of that congregation, and Weiser is now charged with maintaining its cemetery.
“There were hundreds of Jewish families there,” Weiser said. “All three shuls were filled.”
Even after he moved to Squirrel Hill, for years, Weiser returned to Braddock to attend High Holy Day services at Ahavath Achim. He stopped making the trek after the death of Eugene Litman in 2003.
Still, he believes the reach of the former Braddock Jewish community is long.
“No matter where you go — I don’t care if it’s California — you bump into someone who was from Braddock,” he said.
In fact, actress Goldie Hawn’s mother was raised in Braddock, and the names of her family members, the Hochhausers, appear on a plaque inside the synagogue. Hawn has been spotted several times paying her respects at the congregation’s cemetery, which is maintained by Katz.
Lisa Silberman, who, until recently, operated wholesale food distributor AJ Silberman in Braddock and was one of the town’s largest employers, maintains the Sons of Israel cemetery.
“There was a tremendously active Jewish community here in the 1950s,” she said. “The JCC was the center of everything. They had cheder (Hebrew school) two nights a week at the JCC, and then the kids stayed and played basketball. My brother had his bar mitzva there around 1955.”
Although Jews began leaving Braddock in the late 1950s, Jewish businesses remained there until the 1970s, according to Katz.
“It was about 1970 that Braddock dried up,” he said. “That’s when the shifts at the mill changed. The mills used to run three shifts, and employ lots of people. People would get let out of their shifts around the clock, and people would head to the bars and restaurants. It kept the businesses going.”
The town is now pretty much run-down, as is its last standing synagogue. The sidewalk in front of the building is uneven, and the cement steps leading up to its front door are in disrepair. The synagogue itself is set back from the street, sandwiched between two abandoned buildings.
Inside, one gets a sense of the former beauty of the sanctuary — with its intricately carved wood, and the hand-painted mural of Noah’s Ark — but the windows have been broken and patchily repaired, the paint is badly peeling, and there are holes in the wall through which a stray branch from a tree outside pushes its way into the shul.
Downstairs, in the kitchen, a wall is covered with sheet plastic where pipes had been stolen. While the pipes were replaced, there was not enough funding to cover the cost of repairing the wall.
“With limited money,” said Katz, “we try to do what makes sense. We try to keep things dry.”
Most of the money the congregation does manage to collect goes to cemetery maintenance, he said. “Most of the congregants are there now, rather than coming to services, so most of our fundraising efforts go to maintaining the cemetery.”
Time is frozen inside Ahavath Achim. Membership cards, still sitting on the counter in the kitchen, allow for one to fill in the last number of the current year: “194_.”
The original wood-burning stove, which once turned out banquet meals for weddings and bar mitzvas, sits untouched in the kitchen. Two twin beds upstairs where the rabbi and his wife used to sleep on holidays are covered with musty linens.
“It’s become a novelty,” Katz says of his family’s synagogue. “People who grew up here like to come and bring their kids.”
But Katz knows the days of Ahavath Achim may very well be numbered.
“I will keep it going as long as people still want to come,” he said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)