Construction of the new Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob synagogue in Downtown Pittsburgh is under way.
Work began in June at the old Central Blood Bank building at 812 Fifth Ave. The congregation hopes to move into its new home by late April 2010.
“We have done the demolition on the interior of the building,” said Harry Levine, the project’s architect. “We have taken down the two adjacent buildings to build a parking lot.”
The congregation released a statement Monday explaining its reasons for proceeding with construction of a new building.
“Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob synagogue is looking forward to expanding to provide centrally located Jewish worship, learning community, organizational, and kosher hospitality services,” the statement said, “serving the heart of Pittsburgh that is in line with the historic concerns, present values and collective aspiration of Judaism.”
Expounding on that statement, Lee Oleinick, vice president of the congregation and chairman of the building committee, said the members of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob were not ready to let the oldest Orthodox congregation in Jewish Pittsburgh pass into history.
“There are a lot of reasons to do this,” Oleinick told The Chronicle. “One is to continue the Jewish presence in Downtown Pittsburgh and keep the memory of generations past. I’m a third generation [at Beth Hamedrash]. Harry [Levine] has some lineage there. We don’t want to be the bad generation that closed the door on this tradition.”
Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob was forced to sell its old synagogue on Colwell Street last year for $5.5 million to make way for the new Consol Energy Center. Instead of choosing to close the 125-year-old congregation, its members decided to seek a new location and rebuild.
The decision found some criticis in the community, who thought the money could be put to better use.
The new building will have a 135-seat sanctuary, reception/multi-purpose rooms, kosher kitchens, study spaces and an apartment for the rabbi.
“The Fifth Avenue facade is going to have more masonry and newer, more energy-efficient windows,” Levine said, “and a beautiful opening is going to be made in the facade that faces Downtown to allow natural light into the sanctuary.”
Despite the $5.5 million sale of its Colwell Street building, Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob President Ira Frank said the congregation must continue to raise funds to maintain itself.
“We’re going to have to do dedications, and hopefully raise the money for our endowment to live,” Frank said.
That fundraising could include naming rights to parts of the building, Oleinick added.
During construction, the congregation is holding weekday and Shabbat services at the old Musicians Union Local 60-471 hall on Forbes Avenue.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)