With only a handful of members left, the Beth Israel Center in Jefferson Hills has ceased operations after an almost 60-year run.
But Howard Lang, one of the lead directors of Beth Israel’s board, says he sees his congregation’s story as one of success.
“Beth Israel served its local Jewish population in an admirable fashion,” said Lang, a member since 1968.
Beth Israel was formed in 1958 by a small group of local businessmen, engineers and scientists, many of whom worked for the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, a U.S. government-owned research and development facility in West Mifflin.
“The lab employed thousands of people, including many young Jewish physicists and engineers who settled in Pleasant Hills,” Lang said. “They wanted their children to have a Jewish education and a place to worship and socialize.”
When it was founded, the fledgling congregation of 56 families held events at the Pleasant Hills Library, in the basement of the Presbyterian Community Church, in the YMCA and at the Pleasant Hills Middle School until it raised enough funds to purchase land and construct its own building on Gill Hall Road in Jefferson Hills in 1963.
“It was more than a synagogue,” Lang said. “That’s why we called it a ‘center.’ It was a center for education, worship and a social life.”
At its peak, Beth Israel had a membership roll of more than 100 families, and even as late as the 1990s, the congregation managed to maintain a membership of between 60 and 70 families, said Arthur Weinblum, a past president of Beth Israel who joined the congregation during those later years. Weinblum chose to join Beth Israel because its dues structure better fit his budget than the larger congregations in the South Hills and because Beth Israel had an active Hebrew school where his children could acquire a solid Jewish education, he said.
But as time passed, members began to retire and “by and large moved away,” said Lang, a physician who still lives in Whitehall.
Shutting down operations became inevitable.
“More and more families moved out of the area, and the young families that wanted to live in the South Hills were moving to Mt. Lebanon or Upper St. Clair,” Lang continued. “Our membership began to shrink, and about three or four years ago, we were down to about 10 or 15 couples. This year, with the aging process, more of us went on to our ultimate destination.”
While the congregation used to hold Shabbat services each week, those services became less frequent as time went on, eventually dwindling to just once a month. Amy Greenbaum, associate rabbi and director of education at Beth El of the South Hills, served as Beth Israel’s part-time rabbi for the last 15 years, coming out to the center once every several weeks, according to Lang.
But it eventually became difficult to get a minyan of 10 members, and the center stopped having services entirely last spring.
“We did have active adult education programs, with guest speakers, that were well-attended by both the remaining members of the congregation and the local residents of Jefferson Hills, Pleasant Hills and Whitehall,” he said.
But the membership rolls became so small, the center did not even have enough people to maintain an active board of directors.
About a year ago, the remaining members of Beth Israel’s board decided to close the center’s doors for good. The center did not house High Holiday services this year.
The 8,280-square-foot property has been listed for sale for several months and has an interested potential buyer, according to Lang.
The Judaica inside the center has been donated to other congregations, both locally and in other parts of the United States, and items such as chairs and tables have been donated to area churches.
“We had so many bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings back in the day,” Lang said.
“We had all the usual Jewish hallmarks.”
Memorial plaques have been transferred to Beth El, where many of Beth Israel’s remaining families have joined.
“It was a wonderful synagogue,” reflected Weinblum. “It was small, so we all knew each other. I’m going to miss it.”
For Greenbaum, serving as Beth Israel’s rabbi for more than 15 years “has been one of my greatest pleasures and honors,” she wrote in an email. “Our congregants are some of the kindest, most caring people I have ever had the opportunity and privilege to serve, to know and to love.
“I am grateful that the Center was there to serve our members during the time it was needed most in the community,” Greenbaum continued. “For numerous people, Beth Israel Center will be joyfully remembered as a central place in their lives; the heart of their religious life, a place in which they created a second home, made lifelong friendships and raised their children together with devotion and with love. May Beth Israel Center always be remembered as the incredible blessing it was.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at