There is one undeniable fact about Temple B’nai Israel: it’s a survivor.
The White Oak-based Reform congregation is preparing to celebrate its centennial — something many other congregations up and down the Mon Valley never had a chance to do.
“When you look at all the congregations in the Pittsburgh area, there are a number of them certainly larger than ours, but for us to have survived over 100 years is quite a feat,” said Louis Anstandig, president of TBI. “We’re in an area where many towns have become so much smaller and gone through such rough times and yet we’ve managed to adapt to that situation.”
The congregation will mark its milestone anniversary the weekend of Aug. 18 to 19. The Shabbat morning service will be followed by a luncheon, and a gala with entertainment is slated for Sunday at the Stratigos Banquet Center in North Huntingdon. Rabbi Emeritus Walter Jacob of Rodef Shalom Congregation will be the main speaker at the gathering.
During the banquet, members of the congregation age 80 or older will be handed a microphone and asked to share their memories.
Established in McKeesport in 1912, TBI formed because the city needed a “modern Conservative congregation” whose services would be partially in English, according to a congregation history provided by Anstandig.
The congregation first held services in a donated building until it moved to its own synagogue on Shaw Avenue, which it obtained at a sheriff’s sale, in 1917. The congregation remained there until it moved to White Oak in 2000.
“The members shifted to White Oak, and we held out hope of either merging with another congregation or looking for another building elsewhere,” Anstandig said. “That’s why we moved to White Oak in 2000, which was a good idea, and our congregation picked up quite a few members from the eastern communities.”
At its height the congregation could fill all 600 seats at its old building on McKeesport’s Shaw Avenue over the High Holy Days, according to Lindi Kendal, who chairs the anniversary committee for the centennial celebration. Today, the congregation has fewer than 150 members.
Kendal shared a unique story about how her life became intertwined with the temple.
“I was truly born into Temple B’nai Israel,” she said. “My grandparents were among the founders of the synagogue. My parents were the first two temple [congregants] to marry, making me the temple’s first grandchild.”
Others remember TBI being an important part of their childhood.
“It was a big part of how I grew up, a lot of my time was concentrated being at Temple B’nai Israel,” said longtime member Debbie Iszauk. “That’s where my friends were, and that’s where my social life was and it was our life’s focus in many ways.”
Iszauk moved away when she went to college but returned to the area and to her temple.
“To be able to come back to the synagogue that you grew up at now as an adult, you really have that appreciation,” she said. “Here I am now as a 50-something back at the synagogue I grew up with. It’s wonderful to be able to have that.”
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)