With memories of decades past and the uncertainty of days to come, there is an emotional surge ready to crest this holiday season. But given Temple Hadar Israel’s impending closure, the days of awe will have added emotion for members of the New Castle congregation.
“It’s sad. We’ve been here for so many years, and this is it,” said Carole Schwartz, a temple member for more than 50 years.
“Just saying goodbye to the temple and to friends from the congregation that you probably won’t see so often, it’s a tough one, it really is,” echoed Marcia Meyers, a board member who has attended the temple off and on since she was a young girl.
With the synagogue slated to shut on Dec. 31, these High Holidays will be the last for Temple Hadar Israel, a congregation whose origins date to 1894.
Back then, even before 40 people broke ground and incorporated what was once called Tifereth Israel Congregation, New Castle Jewish life had already been present for nearly 50 years.
According to the Rauh Jewish Archives, the sprinklings of New Castle’s Jewish community started with Manassah and Sarah Heinlein in 1848, when a dry goods store was created by Heinlein and his father-in-law, Marx Arnold. Through employment at the shop, the city’s Jewish presence slowly grew. Years after Tifereth Israel, an Orthodox congregation, was established, Temple Israel, a Reform congregation, planted its New Castle roots in 1926.
Tifereth Israel and Temple Israel catered to different religious interests, explained Jonathan Solomon, 70, a lifelong New Castle resident. With a mother who grew up in Temple Israel, and a father who was reared in Tifereth Israel, the High Holidays were an annual confrontation as each parent complained “about the other’s brand of religion, and it got really ugly.”
The following decades brought greater harmony to the New Castle Jewish community. In the 1950s, Tifereth Israel aligned with the Conservative movement, a theological adoption that paved the way for combined educational activities, an eventual merger and the renaming of the two religious institutions (to Temple Hadar Israel) in 1997.
Despite declining membership, the joint congregation operated steadily until 2015 when the building was sold to a local business owner. Since then, the congregation has rented the facilities to hold regular Sabbath and holiday services, said Sam Bernstine, the temple’s president.
In recent years, Bernstine has worked with the temple’s board of directors and representatives from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the Jewish Community Legacy Project, a self-described “resource for small congregations located outside of metropolitan areas that have an aging population and dwindling leadership and a desire to ensure their legacy,” to establish a plan for winding down the temple and dispersing its resources and materials.
“A lot of times emotions run high and things tend to end in somewhat of a negative fashion, and that hasn’t been the case here. People have been very helpful and constructive and have had time to reflect on the history of the temple, and it’s brought back a lot of really good memories. I think that people are at peace with the process and the decision,” said Bernstine.
Based on conversations with the congregants, this High Holiday season is “bittersweet,” said Rabbi Howard Stein, the temple’s spiritual leader.
Whether it is acknowledging the past or anticipating the future, merely entering the building evokes reminiscences, said the congregants.
“There are a lot of good memories, like when I was going there with my parents and my family. Now, that has changed so much; it’s just my sister and my niece and myself,” said Meyers.
“I remember learning lots of things about the kitchen. When I was younger, the older women gave pointers on cooking different things like noodle pudding and potato kugel and even different ways to do brisket,” said Schwartz.
“I was bar mitzvahed at this very temple; my confirmation was at this very temple,” noted Bernstine, 61.
“I was born and bred in the briar patch,” echoed Solomon. “This is the only place of worship I’ve ever had.”
While the temple’s closing marks one chapter in New Castle’s Jewish history, another is soon to be written, added the New Castle resident. “Growing up, there’s always been a Jewish identity in this community; there’s almost always been a rabbi who has lived in this town. It’s kind of the beginning of the end.”
Nonetheless, the beginning of a new year “gives us pause to think about what the year will bring” and also “how our people continue the tradition,” said Stein, a Regent Square resident.
“So many times when a building closes or a congregation ends or a church ends people look at it as the demise or the end. I see it as a fresh beginning for us. It’s sad that we won’t be able to have services in New Castle or in our temple. But because of the country we live in, we will be able to be free to practice our faith and have relationships with other Jewish people in other local communities,” said Bernstine.
Nearby options include synagogues in Youngstown, Ohio, a 30-minute drive from New Castle, or Pittsburgh, a 60-mile trek. Neither option is particularly appealing, said Solomon whose current commute consists of “walking down the street two blocks.”
Staying positive is key, said the temple’s president. “We’ve left a footprint in New Castle. Now the mission is to take that footprint and implant it in other communities collectively with other people in those Jewish communities,” said Bernstine. “You never forget the relationships you’ve made and the history of the building you’ve been in. Hopefully, we can add some value to their communities and their congregations and carry forward what we’ve learned in New Castle.” pjc
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.