The students of Northern Cambria High School often walked by the 85-year-old deserted synagogue, but never paid it much attention. Some did not even know what it was.
But all that has changed. And in a big way.
For the last year, 15 of the school’s juniors and seniors have embarked on a project researching the local Jewish history of their small town, and participating in the $341,000 renovation of the former B’nai Israel synagogue building so that it can be used for social services.
Under the tutelage of Karen Bowman, history teacher and chair of the social studies department, students have traced census records, deeds, and conducted oral interviews with the descendents of the Jewish merchants that helped build the once thriving coal-mining town of Barnesboro.
Barnesboro merged with another small coal-mining town, Spangler, several years ago, and is now Northern Cambria.
“My father grew up there,” said David Karp, who teaches at Temple Emanuel of South Hills Torah Center in Mt. Lebanon, as well as second grade in Peters Township. “He was born in 1922. The synagogue was closed by the time he was growing up. He didn’t have a bar mitzva in 1935. They would have yahrzeits there only. Whenever the coal mine went down, the town started dying out.”
In 1925, when the synagogue was built, there were about 20 Jewish families living in the town, according to Karp. The tiny congregation did not have its own rabbi, so one from Altoona would come to lead services on the high holidays.
“The congregation was mainly Orthodox,” Karp said, “but there was no mikva. The families were all merchants, and they all worked on Friday nights and Saturdays.”
Karp’s grandfather, also named David Karp, helped fund construction of the synagogue, which was dedicated in 1927.
“Barnesboro is the only town in all of Pennsylvania with fewer than 4,000 people that had an actual synagogue,” Bowman said. “So, the curiosity was there about the Jewish community. Today, I know of no Jewish families in our school district. The students were curious about how Barnesboro became a community for the Jewish faithful.”
The synagogue closed its doors for good in 1968, when only one Jewish family remained in the town.
Descendants of Barnesboro’s Jewish families from all over the country have contacted Bowman and her students, coming forward with photographs and other relics, as well as oral histories.
“There has been a kind of revitalization in interest,” she said.
“The Jewish community helped build the business community here,” she continued. “Now, our community has economic hardships. Since the coal industry has declined, economic hardship has set in.”
As part of the project, Bowman managed to take her students to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., through a grant from the Allegheny Community Foundation.
“We had funding to take the students to Washington, feed them, and get them back, without them paying a cent,” she said. “Not many would be likely to get there themselves.”
While most of the Jewish archives were collected last year, the project will continue in the fall as Bowman and her students work to get the synagogue listed as a national historic landmark in order to assure additional funding for the renovation.
She hopes to eventually house the archives collected within the synagogue itself, and make them available to the public.
Coal Country Hangout Youth Center is sponsoring the renovation project, which will restore the exterior of the historic building, and also create four office spaces for community social services.
As many families in Northern Cambria are economically disadvantaged, and have to travel to neighboring towns for social services, it will be a boon to the community to be able to house social service agencies in the former synagogue, Bowman said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)