Beth El Congregation will spend more than 100 days celebrating its centennial anniversary. As opposed to reducing a century’s span to a single evening or one event, members of the Conservative congregation decided to mark the occasion with multiple mechanisms.
“It’s a far more fitting way to celebrate a community that has so many different aspects of it which are wonderful,” said Deb Scheimer, past president of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills.
Throughout the course of the year and into 2018, several activities are planned to commemorate the anniversary.
As part of the congregation’s history committee, Geri Recht has been working on a book to summarize decades past through member recollections.
“Some of them are beautiful memories from the synagogue’s days in Beechview, where it started,” other inclusions denote the origins of particular traditions “and how they’re alive today,” such as the morning minyan or the first women’s group bat mitzvah, said Recht.
Along with the other committee members, Recht has been busy sorting photographs and discovering related anecdotes. “Our goal is to get 100 different stories. We are progressing very nicely.”
Upon the project’s completion, the collection will be available for purchase. And not to worry: “It won’t have any ads, we want to keep the book just about the memories and history of Beth El,” she added.
For those eager to read some text before the book’s expected release in April 2018, several tales of Beth El-goers have been placed on “100 Reasons,” a congregational blog that features “members of our diverse and delightful congregational family.” A recent post recounts a friendship developed at last September’s synagogue picnic.
While putting Beth El in print is one method of telling its story, another convention was recently adopted, as last month, a memorial was established in the synagogue. Less a time capsule than a living testament, the structure contains original manuscripts from the congregation’s 1917 inception as well as photographs pertaining to significant periods. Some of the relics even came from a formerly stored container, said Cliff Spungen, president of the congregation.
“The Minsky family dedicated the contents from our 1926 time capsule from our original location in Beechview in a beautiful display case located in the Tabor Reception Lobby,” said Steve Hecht, Beth El’s executive director.
What people should realize is that “the history of Beth El Congregation represents two important migrations in the local Jewish community,” said Eric Lidji, archival consultant at the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center.
“The first is the move out of the Hill District. In the three years before Beth El was founded in Beechview in 1917, Talmud Torah Congregation started on the South Side, Adath Jeshurun Congregation started in East Liberty, Beth Shalom Congregation started in Squirrel Hill, and Ohave Zedeck Congregation started in Oakland,” he continued. “The second migration is the move out of the city. Beth El moved to the South Hills during a wave of new suburban congregations, including Temple Emanuel, Temple David, Parkway Jewish Center and Beth Israel Center.”
This process of cataloging the congregation’s past and even enclosing a piece of its narrative generates not only reflection, but also a glimpse to the future, said Spungen.
“Something that really hit me was when we saw the documents from when the first building was constructed,” he said. “There were members who took out mortgages on their own homes to help build the building. People were willing to put themselves out to help the congregation grow,” he said.
That spirit is evident in the number of ongoing projects where “we have a lot of volunteers who give of their time,” said Susie Seletz, a member whose childhood was spent in the congregation.
Whether hosting a weekly bingo game for the South Hills community or making Purim boxes for the entire congregation, there are countless ways that people adopt enterprising and conscientious roles in the congregation, added the Beth El returnee.
“As someone who was away for my whole adult life and was very active in synagogue life in the other cities where we lived, Beth El, in a much more updated way, has all the wonderful things it had when I left and even more of what I was seeking. I feel incredibly lucky to [be] back.”
“In the days of moving away, it’s remarkable how many people have come back and have reacquainted themselves with the synagogue, and it’s very encouraging,” said Samuel Balk, Seletz’s father and a past president of the congregation.
Part of the reason that people feel so invested is because of a general commitment to welcomeness, said Spungen. “You can’t be a new person coming into our services without being approached by a half dozen or so people who are finding out who you are and making you comfortable in the service or the building.”
That commitment to caring for others extends externally as well, he added, as another component of the centennial celebration is “100 Mitzvot,” a project that encourages members to complete 100 “good deeds” by volunteering throughout greater Pittsburgh. For those interested in participating, a list of more than 40 organizations and causes, with contact information, is available online.
“We try to lead the way in many respects for the community in the South Hills, and we’ve been doing this for some time,” said Balk, who credited “excellent rabbinic leadership” for providing a path to follow.
Said Scheimer, “It wasn’t overnight that we became the amazing dynamic community that we are. It took years to build this community and lots of hard work to maintain this community for everyone’s enjoyment.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz