Gershon Gutman wriggles a key into the lock, but it won’t budge. “It’s the humidity,” he says.
Gutman is trying to open a simple white door centered on the side of a detached two-car garage that sits at the end of a nondescript gravel driveway trailing down from the main street of White Oak.
Gutman, a lifelong resident of White Oak and chairman of the Ritual Committee of the Gemilas Chesed synagogue, finally gets the lock to turn. He flicks on the lights inside to reveal a small, carpeted room. In the back, past a rainbow of towels hanging from the mouths of several laundry hampers, is a square pool of water, covered with pieces of home insulation, “to save a few bucks.”
This is the mikvah. It’s filtered, heated, meticulously kosher and a centerpiece of Jewish life for the Orthodox community in this small McKeesport suburb.
And it’s fighting for survival. The 40-year-old mikvah needs around $50,000 in repairs and renovations to remain serviceable for the community, Gutman said.
As the only facility of its kind in western Pennsylvania outside of Squirrel Hill, the mikvah is one of the few remaining symbols of self-sufficiency for White Oak. As the community shrank with the decline of the steel industry, the Jewish community lost members and local institutions. Now, Jews from White Oak must make the 25-minute drive to Squirrel Hill to buy kosher meat, Shabbat candles, Jewish books and other Judaica, and to take their children to Jewish day schools.
The remaining members of Gemilas Chesed take pride in having kept their community alive long after other suburban Orthodox communities in the Mon Valley disappeared. The mikvah is one reason White Oak has bucked the regional trend; it allows the community to observe the ritual laws of purity right at home.
“People have said they would move out without it,” said Nachum Brand, the rabbi of Gemilas Chesed. “The need to have a local mikvah is a convenience, but it is also a central aspect of maintaining a proper Jewish community and a kosher Jewish family.”
A mikvah is essential to an observant Jewish community. Without it, observing the laws of family purity, making new dishes kosher, bathing before holidays and performing conversions is impossible.
This is why the Talmud says the ritual bathhouse is so important to Jewish family life that it must be the first thing built in a new community, even preceding construction of a synagogue. The Chofetz Chaim, the great 20th century Jewish sage, ruled one may not live in a community without a mikvah.
The mikvah isn’t the only perk of life in White Oak. There is an eruv encircling the city, allowing observant Jews to carry things outside on Shabbos. There are also nonreligious perks, Gutman said.
“It’s a slowed down lifestyle here from in the city, and more affordable,” he said. “The synagogue bought the Chinn’s house for $120,000. It would have easily cost $400,000 in Squirrel Hill, and that’s just for the property. That wouldn’t even include the lawn that you need a riding mower for. … But the mikvah is a plus. It definitely puts a point in the win column for us.”
The mere existence of a mikvah in a borough of about 8,500 people shows the dedication of its current and former leaders. Congregation Gemilas Chesed traces its roots to McKeesport, where it was based until U.S. Steel purchased the synagogue and mikvah in the late 1960s, and the congregation moved to White Oak.
At the time, the community didn’t know if it would have the funds to build a new mikvah. But Yitzhok Chinn, then the rabbi of Gemilas Chesed, felt a Jewish community wasn’t complete without a mikvah, and he threatened to leave unless one was built.
With the synagogue board hesitant to give the $100,000 needed for the project, Chinn took matters into his own hands. He cleared out half his garage, and oversaw a community effort to pay for and build the mikvah. The two-pit filling and filtering system ensures the mikvah will always be filled with warm, clean rainwater that conforms to the strictest guidelines of Jewish law.
“The Chinns became a one-car family in order to afford to build the mikvah,” Gutman said. “And after it was built, that car got rusted out because of all the humidity from the mikvah.”
Rust is a potent symbol in the Mon Valley, where the local economy rose and fell with the steel industry.
As the industry declined and died in the ’80s, the population of McKeesport dropped from 60,000 to 15,000. Many Jewish owned businesses catered to those steel workers, and soon found themselves out of business. Jewish families moved away, and the membership of Gemilas Chesed subsequently fell from 280 members to its current size of 100.
Around 30 women and men pay a fee to visit the mikvah each month to ritually purify both themselves and their dishes.
“We get some Pittsburghers here regularly,” Gutman said, “perhaps out of convenience, or perhaps out of relationship to the Chinns.”
The Chinn family has been synonymous with White Oak for decades. Rabbi Chinn served the community from its founding in the 1960s until his death 18 months ago. His widow, Rebbetzin Bena Chinn, moved to Israel to be with her daughter, but not before making Gutman promise to keep the mikvah in White Oak.
Now, Gutman is learning how challenging it is to keep that promise.
Gutman and others in the community believe the mikvah needs substantial repairs and renovations to make it more welcoming. The space can feel cramped and musty.
Although the walls of the shower room were redone earlier in the decade to repair damage caused by humidity, the shower itself is still the original equipment installed in the 1960s. The toilet is in a closet.
Gutman wants to address these problems by redoing the adjacent garage — an effort to “open it up a little, use the available space to make it a little more ‘2000s-ish.’ ”
But money is scarce. Gutman estimates the project will cost around $50,000, funding needed on top of the daily cost of upkeep. To date, Gutman estimates the Gemilas Chesed Mikvah Fund has only about $7,000 in it. “It’s a start,” he said. “We will get a chunk of stuff done.”
The exterior will be one of the first improvements, Gutman said as he surveyed the cracked and chipped red paint flaking from the building.
“I especially want to get a new doorknob,” he said.
(Derek Kwait can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)