New Light Congregation’s original name was Ohel Jacob and originally served Pittsburgh’s Romanian Jewish community.
Poale Zedeck Congregation was founded by Hungarian Jewish immigrants and was originally located in the Hill District; when it moved to Squirrel Hill, it became the first Orthodox synagogue in that neighborhood.
Beth Samuel Congregation in Ambridge began its life in 1914 as Beth Schmuel Congregation; the former building now houses a restaurant.
Barnesboro, home of the former B’nai Israel synagogue, was the smallest town in Pennsylvania to have a synagogue.
Those are just some of the intriguing tidbits found in “The Synagogues of Central and Western Pennsylvania: A Visual Journey” by Julian H. Preisler, a slim but comprehensive walk-through of area synagogues, past and present.
Synagogues were not simply places of worship but were an essential means of creating and belonging to a community, particularly for newly arrived immigrants.
The abundance of synagogues that cropped up in smaller towns is unique to Pennsylvania, says the author. “The diversity of Jewish architecture … reflects the rich diversity of the Jewish communities that settled” here.
Undoubtedly, viewing the photos — mostly black and white but some color ones as well — will stir up many memories for local residents who had long ago, or current, associations with some of these synagogues depicted in the book. And even for those unfamiliar with the synagogues, the photos and accompanying historical blurbs are fascinating regardless.
Architectural descriptions are included to round out the photos of the exterior, and sometimes the interior, of the synagogues. What East Ender could forget B’nai Israel Synagogue on North Negley Avenue, with its iconic, ornate dome?
Synagogues of all denominations are depicted from such small towns as Donora in Washington County, Ellwood City in Lawrence County and Lock Haven in Clinton County. It is reassuring to know that some of these small synagogues still thrive and equally disheartening to learn of the closure of countless others due to a vanishing Jewish population in those areas. For example, B’nai Israel Congregation in Glassport, founded in 1906, disbanded in 1976, but Temple Beth El in Bradford still exists, though it has moved to a smaller building.
In addition to the shorter descriptions that accompany each photo, the author provides a more expansive overview about the synagogues that represented the Jewish communities in each major city or county.
For example, Preisler reports that the first congregation in Pittsburgh was called Shaare Shamayim, established in 1848 and originating from a burial society called Bes Almon; present-day Rodef Shalom traces its roots to those beginnings. He also gives a historical background to the Hill District rash of synagogues (then known as “Jews Hill”).
As some of the buildings pictured in the book have been demolished, such as the Colwell Street Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the original Kesher Israel in Harrisburg and Oil City’s Tree of Life Congregation, the pictorial collection is a true treasure map to a bygone era.
And if they weren’t destroyed, some synagogues were repurposed. The building that housed Agudath Achim Hebrew Congregation in Beaver Falls is now used as a kitchen cabinet workshop; many others are now churches. In some cases, traces of these buildings’ past lives are still evident in their exterior. For example, the Star of David stained glass window that adorned Temple Beth Shalom in Clearfield is still there, though the building is now home to the Clearfield Arts Studio Theater.
Ultimately, the book — which can be purchased at jpreisler.com/Books.htm and Barnesandnoble.com and will be available at Amazon.com — is a loving tribute to the Jewish communities of Western and Central Pennsylvania. Preisler’s research has yielded a treasure trove of information about these synagogues that otherwise may have been lost to time.
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.