(This is the latest in a continuing series of stories about synagogues that are outliving their congregations.)
While other congregations struggle to find ways to get people in the door on Shabbat, Temple Beth Am in Monessen can boast that it consistently has almost 100 percent attendance of its members at its Friday night services.
Never mind that this Mon Valley congregation is down to 20 member families. Once a month, nine times a year, they all gather to worship and break bread in honor of the Sabbath.
The driving force that is literally keeping the congregation alive and well — if diminishing — is Mon Valley native, and lifelong member of the congregation, Phyllis Ackerman.
“We’re small, but viable,” Ackerman said of Beth Am, which is led by a
visiting student rabbi from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
Ackerman, born in 1936, remembers a time when the congregation thrived, accomodating more than 100 children in its religious school.
But times have changed.
“Now, we have no children here at all,” she said.
The building on Watkins Avenue that is now Temple Beth Am was constructed in 1952. Originally a Conservative congregation, it replaced the Kneseth Israel synagogue that was built in downtown Monessen in 1908. The congregation changed its name to Temple Beth Am after it merged with Charleroi’s Temple Rodef Shalom.
While Beth Am used to have services biweekly, the tiny congregation now only brings in its student rabbi once a month.
“That’s what we can afford,” Ackerman said.
Once a month the sisterhood, under the leadership of Ackerman, prepares a Friday night dinner for about 20 people.
“Phyllis does the cooking,” said her husband, Sidney Ackerman, who grew up across the river in Donora. “When she doesn’t cook, we order pizzas, or Italian food. Most of our members come.”
Beth Am also has services on the High Holy Days, this year drawing more than 30 people, some from neighboring towns that no longer have a synagogue. Ackerman saw to it that there was a festive break fast at the conclusion of Yom Kippur.
“We have flowers, and colored tablecloths,” she said. “People are shocked to see how nice we do these things.”
Back in its heyday, in the 1940s and 1950s, Monessen’s only Jewish congregation had about 150 member families, recalled Jack Bergstein, who was born in Monessen in 1940 and still lives there.
“You went [to the synagogue] on Friday nights and Saturday mornings,” he said. “There were services on a weekly basis. It was a pretty traditional congregation, with everyone walking on the High Holidays.”
“We had an AZA chapter, and B’nai B’rith, and a very active sisterhood,” Bergstein continued. “We had a unique pre-AZA and BBG organization called the Saturday Nighters Club for 10- and 11-year-olds. We would meet for social functions.”
Nearby Donora had an Orthodox synagogue that closed its doors for good about 10 years ago, Bergstein said. That town also had a kosher butcher.
“There used to be a big Jewish community in Monessen,” said Phyllis Ackerman. “We used to have a lot of dances. After Yom Kippur, there was a dance. Now we just don’t have the people.”
While Beth Am’s finances are not sufficient to make needed improvements to the synagogue, the building is nonetheless well kept. The carpeting in the sanctuary looks brand new, although it was installed about 10 years ago for the congregation’s last bar mitzva. The social hall is clean and tidy, having just been used for the break fast. Siddurim are neatly lined up on the wooden shelves, ready to be used for the next monthly Shabbat service.
But at Beth Am, the past seems almost as alive as the present. Tacked on the walls of the Sunday school classrooms are photographs of students enjoying picnics and holiday parties; the photos must be at least 20 years old. Hebrew lessons remain written on the chalkboards, although the rooms have not been used for ages.
“The whole valley has changed,” said Sidney Ackerman. “Everybody has moved away. The whole town has shrunk.”
The Jewish community began to leave Monessen before the mills began shutting down in 1967, said Sidney Ackerman. He worked in a mill for 27 years, while also operating a furniture re-sale business. Most of the Jews in town, though, were merchants, he said. They left when the Monessen economy began to slump, and when big stores such as A&P and K-Mart proved too competive.
But Phyllis Ackerman is trying her best to keep Judaism alive in the Mon Valley.
“I want to keep it [Beth Am] going, because we are the only Jewish presence in the Valley, and that’s important,” she said.
“I try to talk her into going away for the holidays,” husband Sidney said of his wife. “But she won’t leave.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)