Inside a yellowish brick building in Latrobe, an elderly man watched as his synagogue’s belongings were packed away. Mickey Radman, whose membership at Beth Israel Congregation spans five decades, observed Susan Melnick and Eric Lidji gently place blueprints, photographs and old programs into white archival boxes. Melnick and Lidji, both of the Rauh Jewish Archives, traveled to this city an hour east of the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community with the specific intent to preserve.
Fearing the outcome of Beth Israel’s imminent closure, Melnick and Lidji scoured bookshelves and cabinets searching for illustrative materials. Behind dusty prayer books and wooden cases, they discovered historical treasures such as the building’s original architectural drawings dating to the early 1950s and a black-and-white photograph of regional spiritual leaders. They even found a newspaper clipping of an interview with Jackie Mason.
Radman, who explained the significance of each finding to Melnick and Lidji, delighted upon seeing the clipping, as Mason briefly occupied Beth Israel’s pulpit before entering comedy.
The Dec. 5 project, which was filmed by a crew working on a “Last Jews in America” documentary, took several hours. At the end, a Havdalah set and a large portrait of Moses were some of the few items left in the old synagogue. Everything else was carted away.
“In so many cases, records of congregations are lost,” said Melnick.
“We’re trying to preserve the history of the congregation,” added Radman.
Beth Israel’s is the story of many small-town synagogues, beginning in this case around the mid-19th century as Jews first arrived in Latrobe. Roughly 50 years later, the community built a synagogue on Miller Street. That building lasted until the early 1950s, but time had taken its toll.
“The old building was old and decrepit,” said Radman. “It was close to a sewage system and across from a junk yard.”
The congregation sold the Miller Street property for $3,500, a transaction attested to by a document Melnick uncovered during her search. A new building on Weldon Street opened in 1954, its foundation sunk on the site of two wooden homes that were demolished.
Its new building secure, the congregation vigorously fundraised with a series of card parties and dinners. By 1959, members successfully paid off the mortgage. Membership grew; according to a 1962 synagogue bulletin, Beth Israel possessed 113 members.
That was the high point, however. As the years wore on, membership dwindled.
Board member Irving Bloom, who joined the congregation 20 years ago, said that the synagogue currently has between “20 and 25 members.”
When he joined, there were “many more, at least double,” added Bloom. But “members got older, died off. Some moved away.”
According to Radman, Beth Israel hasn’t had a minyan since the High Holidays. He’s called a board meeting to discuss the congregation’s future; it’s scheduled to occur in the next few weeks.
“We have had many discussions about what to do,” said Bloom. “We will be slowly closing down, selling our assets, setting up a fund for Seton Hill Holocaust education, a rabbi for the Westmoreland area and food provisions through the Latrobe Ministerial Association.”
What will become of the congregation’s three Torahs is still unknown.
But while Beth Israel winds down, the closing has attracted the attention of Milwaukee-based 371 Productions. It’s been following the Latrobe synagogue’s plight since production began on the “Last Jews of America” in April 2013.
Morgan Johnson, an associate producer, is co-directing the film, which follows small-town Jewish communities facing extinction. Johnson explained that during the development and research stages, 371 had “looked at 12 congregations around the country, seeing what stories we could find.”
Upon discovering Beth Israel, Johnson recognized ripe material.
“I knew we had a story here. When you look at Mickey [Radman] you can see how much he cares,” explained Johnson. “The congregation is his life. It’s why he’s still in Latrobe.”
Along with Latrobe, the documentary features Jewish communities in Butte, Mont., Laredo, Texas and Dothan, Ala.
From filming these locales, Johnson has noticed communal contrasts.
“What it means to be Jewish in Alabama is different than what it means to be Jewish in Latrobe,” he said. Each small town has a “different subculture.”
Latrobe, he observed, is a “very devout community. Their Jewishness is connected to spirituality. Their level of dedication is different than Butte, where the main character travels to Chicago to visit family or Israel for spiritual nourishment.”
Although Beth Israel has not yet closed, Radman noted that he has been proactively working with Melnick to preserve the congregation’s history.
“When we decide to close, we don’t want to wait until the last minute,” he explained.
Radman’s prescience is not uncommon, according to Noah Levine, senior vice president of the Jewish Community Legacy Project, an organization that helps small Jewish communities plan ahead.
Each congregation has its own point of no return, Levine explained. Whether it is an absence of minyans, leadership or a decline in membership, “it is up to each synagogue to decide what its trigger point is.”
For many congregations, once membership recognizes the inevitable, Levine and JCLP are consulted. Employing a strategic planning initiative, JCLP then works with congregations to sustain active Jewish life as long as possible and create a legacy plan.
In the case of Beth Israel, Levine first started with the Latrobe congregation in October 2012. While in town for the 150th anniversary of the Johnstown Jewish community, someone suggested that he contact Beth Israel.
Levine was impressed by Radman and Beth Israel’s other lay leaders.
“It’s a real testament to their Jewish commitment,” he said. “It’s really inspiring to see how they’re committed to sustaining Jewish life as long as possible.”
Since their initial meeting, Levine and JCLP have worked with Beth Israel to create a legacy plan.
“It’s like you or me doing our own estate planning,” he said. “We’re doing it because we want to be prepared.”
The plan included areas targeted for endowment, with funds arising from the future sale of congregational assets. Levine noted that in addition to archiving records, synagogues such as Beth Israel often record oral histories of individuals with institutional memory. Additionally, steps are taken to transfer memorial plaques to another congregation.
Collectively, the process of winding down a congregation is one which Levine claims “preserves integrity.”
“Once a congregation decides to close,” he said, “they can be proud that they’ve left a legacy that will help the Jewish community going forward.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.