Preserving a legacy
Milt Kronick remembers a time when the pews at Congregation Tree of Life in Uniontown were filled with over 200 families on Shabbat, when the now empty classrooms were animated by scores of religious school students three times a week and when the B’nai B’rith young men’s softball team dominated in 1949 to take the Fayette County championship.
But now, as with many other smaller towns in Western Pennsylvania, the Jewish presence in Uniontown has faded, and the remaining members are taking practical steps to preserve its legacy while facing the end of an era.
Tree of Life has entered into a contract with a nearby church for the sale of its 95-year-old building. The sale is expected to close at the end of the month.
“I have been a member of Tree of Life forever,” said Kronick, 88, who shares the presidency of the congregation with Myrna Giannopoulos and Mort Opall. Kronick, who is a Uniontown native, said his father served as president for several terms as well.
“We’re dwindling,” acknowledged Kronick, who also serves as treasurer of the town’s burial society, its chevra kadisha. “Some of our old-timers leave Uniontown because their kids say they need to live near them because they have too many medical problems.”
What’s left of Uniontown’s small Jewish population — fewer than 30 people, Kronick estimated — is, in fact, mostly “old-timers.” Without younger Jews choosing to stay in Uniontown, and with older members leaving or dying, Tree of Life leaders concluded that it was time to sell their building, which costs about $25,000 a year to maintain, according to Giannopoulos.
Tree of Life was founded in 1901 as an Orthodox congregation, but shifted to the Conservative movement in 1975. For decades it held Shabbat services each week on Friday nights and Saturday mornings and on all the Jewish holidays.
Recently, though, Kronick said, the congregation has held services only about once a month and even then has struggled to get a minyan.
“There’s a lack of numbers,” he said. “If you only get five or six people, it’s hard to conduct services. But we are trying to do what we can.”
The congregation held its last service in its historic building on June 13, according to Giannopoulos. Seventeen people attended and joined together for a farewell oneg.
It has been a long time since the congregation had a rabbi. For seven years, Perry Haalman traveled from Pittsburgh to Uniontown each week to lay-lead services until he became incapacitated from an auto accident in 2012.
“They are a very conscientious synagogue,” said Haalman. “They are probably the finest congregation I ever worked for. They are very haimish. Most of them have been in Uniontown since the beginning. These are very loving and caring people. It’s a shame this has happened.”
It is, however, not a surprise. Just two years ago, Temple Israel, the Reform congregation just around the corner from Tree of Life, sold its building.
The Uniontown Jewish Community Center also is up for sale, according to Randy Mundle, the “president, treasurer and secretary” of Uniontown’s JCC.
The JCC had been operating a day care center and a swimming pool open to the wider Uniontown community, but pool membership “died off,” Mundle said, and the day care numbers fell. About two years ago, he closed the pool and the day care center.
While the JCC is still rented out on occasion for wedding receptions, without a steady source of revenue, it is “hard to keep it up,” Mundle said.
Mundle was raised in Uniontown and now is charged with running his family’s business, Mundle’s Furniture. He recalled the days when the JCC was a hub of Jewish life, home to summer camp and theater productions.
“There used to be 500 Jewish families in Uniontown,” said Mundle, whose grandfather was one of the founders of Tree of Life. “I’m the only one left here from my class.”
Until the JCC is sold, Congregation Tree of Life will use that building to hold services.
“We’re not giving up on the congregation,” said Giannopoulos. “We’re going to meet at the JCC in town, and we’ll try to have services once a week, on Saturday mornings.”
After the JCC is sold, however, Tree of Life will have to find another place to worship.
“We are aware the JCC is trying to sell,” Kronick said. “That’s why we’re in a precarious situation.”
The congregation is currently in the process of sorting through 95 years of accumulated belongings and papers. Some of the religious items will be moved to the JCC, Giannopoulos said. A Torah will be sent to a Chabad house in Virginia. Other items, such as Torah covers, may be returned to the families that donated them. The memorial plaques in the sanctuary will be relocated to a new reflection room in a building on the grounds of one of the town’s two Jewish cemeteries. The stained glass windows, along with the nameplates honoring their donors, will remain in the building.
The church that will be purchasing the facility — which the presidents of Tree of Life declined to identify — wants to keep those nameplates, Giannopoulos said, as well as the name “Tree of Life,” to honor the Jewish legacy of the building.
“The church that is buying the building has been very, very accommodating,” said Kronick. “They said they would take care of our things until we could arrange to get them. And they said that even after the closing, we are welcome to have services there as long as we need to. They are being very generous.”
The proceeds of the sale of Tree of Life will be invested for the perpetual
care of the two Jewish cemeteries, said Giannopoulos.
The congregation is working with Susan Melnick, director of the Small Town Jewish History Project, to preserve its history. Melnick is contracting with the Heinz History Center on a one-year project to collect oral histories and documents to help safeguard the Jewish legacies in Western Pennsylvania’s small towns. She has been working with writer and archivist Eric Lidji since March on the project, which is funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the PNC Charitable Trust, Youngstown Area Jewish Federation and the Heinz History Center.
Melnick and Lidji will be posting much of their findings onto Rauh Jewish Archive’s website and also will place the information into the archives at the History Center. They are looking not only for congregational records and photographs, she said, but also for documents kept by individual families revealing the types of businesses and civic activities in which Jews participated in these towns.
“As I’m well aware, a lot of these materials have been lost,” Melnick explained. “People have died, or the materials have been thrown out. This is an opportunity now to collect it.”
“At one point, there were 50 communities in Western Pennsylvania with 100 [Jewish] people or more,” she noted. “For many of them, there are no records beyond cemetery records. Now, we are working very hard to collect what we can.”
While the remaining members of Tree of Life may feel comfortable that they are doing what they can to preserve the Jewish legacy in Uniontown, the decision to sell the building was not easy.
“It’s very sad,” said Giannopoulos, 70. “I felt torn, because my parents came here for all the holidays, and I’ve been here forever. It’s hard. It’s very hard.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.