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Synagogues struggle in mill towns

POSTED: June 14, 2014 1:00 a.m.
/McClatchy Newspapers

A play on the Holocaust is performed April 24 at Temple Hadar Israel in New Castle, Pa. The congregation, once 300 to 400 families strong, has only 70 members.

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For one evening in mid-April in New Castle, Pa., Temple Hadar Israel bustled with the sounds of prayers, the tinkling of glasses and dishes and even the joyful outbursts of a visiting toddler. About three dozen members and visitors had gathered on the first night of Passover over matzo ball soup and other traditional fare for a communal celebration of the ancient Jewish ritual meal.

The chatter and laughter among the mostly older, informally dressed group provided a respite from the reality that the days of the historic synagogue in the Lawrence County city are likely numbered.

Once with 300 to 400 families in the two synagogues that have long since merged, Hadar Israel is now down to 70 members.

“Way back when, they used to have a service every day,” said Arthur Epstein, 81, who has been a member for 50 years. “That’s when they were a booming congregation.”

On Judaism’s holiest days, worshippers once overflowed from the main sanctuary into a fellowship hall filled with folding chairs. Today, plenty of empty seats are at regular prayers, and classrooms once serving 100 young students now sit idle.

“We’re trying our best to keep it alive,” Epstein said. But “you have to have people.”

The story is being repeated throughout small-town America — but nowhere more so than in the constellation of small mill cities in the Tri-State area of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia that have long since passed their peak industrial years.

Along the Ohio and Monongahela river valleys, in the Laurel Highlands and in county seats through the region, synagogues with rich legacies have been entering what some describe as hospice care.

Many are already the last synagogues in town — mergers of Reform, Conservative or Orthodox congregations that once flourished separately, now using a blend of denominational liturgies. It’s often a matter of when, not if, they will close. Many are preparing for the care of their cemeteries, endowments and Torah scrolls after they close.

Chalk it up to mills, malls, marriage and mobility.

As the traditional steel and other industrial employers closed or downsized, fewer customers frequented the downtown shops run by Jewish merchants — who also faced competition from new, larger store chains.

And like Jews elsewhere, younger generations are more likely to pursue professions in Pittsburgh or other larger cities.

“In smaller towns, kids go off to college and don’t come back. That tends to age a lot of these small congregations,” said Rabbi Howard Stein, who commutes from Pittsburgh’s South Hills twice a month to lead services at Hadar Israel, which went from full- to part-time rabbinical services to stretch its budget.

And small-town synagogues are buffeted by trends sweeping American Judaism overall.

A growing minority of Jews — including nearly one-third of younger adults — say they’re not religious, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center. More than half of Jews who married since 2000 did so to non-Jews. When asked what makes one Jewish, significantly fewer listed Jewish community involvement or observance of religious law than pursuing more general values of morality, ethics and justice.

While small-town congregations face challenges, they’re not unique to synagogues.

Traditional ethnic churches of all stripes of Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism have been shrinking or closing across the Tri-State region and many Northern and Midwestern states. But the loss of a city’s historic synagogue has unique poignancy for Jews.

Communal worship is central to Judaism, and synagogues often provided a social outlet and a haven in times of overt discrimination.

“It’s really an emotional thing” for people to close a synagogue where they had marked the years by bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and funerals,” said Sharon Perelman, associate director of the Jewish Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, which is helping several area synagogues plan their legacies.

“The synagogue was the bedrock for the Jewish community. It wasn’t just a place where you had worship,” she said.

“When a synagogue or temple closes in a community, that’s it,” said David Sarnat, president of the Atlanta-based Jewish Community Legacy Project, which has consulted with declining synagogues in the Pittsburgh region and in the South and Midwest. “In almost every community we deal with, they’re down to their last congregation. It’s not like we’re able to say to them, ‘Go down the street to Congregation XYZ.’”

Instead, those Jews are faced with longer commutes to worship in Pittsburgh or another city.

Sam Bernstine, president of Hadar Israel in New Castle, said the synagogue hopes to maintain religious services, classes and other activities as long as it can.

“Our goal is to keep this open so these wonderful senior citizens can finish their lives with the temple they began their lives with,” said Bernstein, who turns 58 this month and is often the youngest one at services.


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