The size of Jewish communities in small towns across the United States is shrinking — and has been for many years.
As those communities decline and disappear, their histories are also in danger of being lost.
Starting this fall, the Jewish community of Johnstown will do something about that.
The community, which is about 70 miles east of Pittsburgh, is preparing to mark the 125th anniversary of organized Jewish life in Johnstown. To celebrate, the Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA) and Beth Sholom Congregation are partnering with the Jewish Community Heritage Project to bring a series of traveling exhibits, special guests and more to the west-central Pennsylvania city, from this coming September through August 2013.
Jews have called Johnstown home since the 1850s, but they didn’t make it official until the first Jewish burial ground at Grandview Cemetery was established in 1888. Eastern European Jews flocked to the city from 1880 to 1920, during the great wave of immigration. At one time, there were some 1,800 Jews in the city.
Today, there are fewer than 150.
“There are a lot of reasons why Johnstown lost its [Jewish] population,” said Barry Rudel, a volunteer heading the series, “but certainly it’s a microcosm of the rest of the Tri-State area, no doubt. There are some other factors including its proximity to Pittsburgh.”
Rudel is a Johnstown native who now lives in Pittsburgh. Several other Johnstown natives make their home in the Pittsburgh area. Many left Johnstown to find work here.
Rudel also cited an aging population and assimilation as factors in the diminishing Jewish life in Johnstown and other communities throughout western Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Yet Pittsburgh’s Jewish community has long supported Johnstown.
“Johnstown in and of itself has always been considered Pittsburgh’s miniature sibling; that’s been written in books,” Rudel said. “The 1889 flood where 24 Johnstown Jews died, the Pittsburgh Jewish community was right there for them, along with the rest of the country, in gathering up about $13,000.”
But the Johnstown Jewish Community Heritage Project will give Johnstown’s Jewish community a chance to take the spotlight.
“It’s really in response to the interest in the community, in fact it was Barry Rudel who actually calculated that it was the 125th anniversary of the establishment of organized Jewish community in Johnstown,” said JAHA President Richard Burkert. “He’s a historian and he really thought it was an opportunity to encourage the Jewish community to look back at its own heritage here in Johnstown and better inform the larger community about that story.”
The series kicks off Sept. 27 as Princeton University professor Michael Walzer, who is Jewish and a Johnstown native, gives a lecture at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown on a topic to be announced.
The next day, Sept. 28, an exhibition called “The Johnstown Jewish Community: 1888-Present” will open. The exhibition, which will run until June 2013, will include themes from the history of the Jewish community in Johnstown such as differences in religious practice, discrimination versus integration and philanthropy, among other topics.
“One of the themes in the exhibit will be [how] the (Jewish) community helped with the recovery from our flood,” said Kaytlin Sumner, JAHA collections manager. “That’s an important part of the story that we’re telling.”
Also on Sept. 28, the traveling exhibit, “The Jonah Drawings,” by David Wander, opens at the Johnstown Discovery Center. The drawings explore the Book of Jonah and the writings of the prophets. The display consists of 13 panels in shades of grey, blue and black that follow the texts and visually interprets scenes. The arrangement will be accompanied by additional paintings interpreting the writings. The exhibit will be at the Johnstown Discovery Center until Dec. 31.
Other traveling exhibits and activities include:
• “Cinema Judaica: The War Years,” (Feb. 1 to March 31, 2013) featuring iconic Hollywood film posters from 1939 to 1949. This exhibit will illustrate how the motion picture industry countered America’s isolationism, advocated going to war against the Nazis, influenced post-war perceptions of Jewish people and the founding of the State of Israel and shaped the face of contemporary Jewish life;
• “Letters to Sala — A Young Woman’s Life in Nazi Labor Camps” (March 1 to Aug. 31, 2013), a traveling exhibition based on the Sala Garncarz Kirschner Collection in the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library, a new collection of letters, photographs and documents that were mailed or smuggled into Nazi labor camps; and
• a bus trip from Monroeville to Johnstown Nov. 11, hosted by the Johnstown Jewish Family Service, which will depart at 8:30 a.m. and give people in the Pittsburgh area a chance to take advantage of the exhibits that will be in the city. The trip will include a morning visit to the Jewish exhibits, a riding tour of Johnstown’s Jewish and general sites with stops at the incline plane and Flood Museum and a return to Monroeville by 5 p.m.
All of the events are free. Funding is coming from the Abe and Janet Beerman Fund at the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, the William L. Glosser Family Fund, the Saul and Eva Glosser Memorial Fund and the United Johnstown Jewish Federation.
“Johnstown is better off because of its Jewish community,” said Rudel. “There are like six or eight institutions that are funded by Jewish philanthropists there very quietly. It’s rather unique in that way.”
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at email@example.com.)