McKeesport native returns to record Jewish community’s history

McKeesport native returns to record Jewish community’s history

Sam Zolten, a Jewish documentary filmmaker, has returned to his roots with “Missing McKeesport.”
Photo by James Roland
Sam Zolten, a Jewish documentary filmmaker, has returned to his roots with “Missing McKeesport.” Photo by James Roland

By way of Philadelphia, Sam Zolten is bringing new life to McKeesport. For the past six years, the Jewish filmmaker has labored to preserve McKeesport’s Jewish past.

“The McKeesport that we knew and loved, today exists in our collective memory,” noted Zolten, who six years ago began what would become “Missing McKeesport,” a documentary about the city’s once thriving Jewish community.

Zolten, who grew up in McKeesport before moving to Philadelphia to study documentary film, was drawn to the project after being contacted to video a reunion.

In 2010, nearly 200 people (many of whom had left McKeesport in the years since the community’s wane) attended a gathering at Seven Springs Mountain Resort. Zolten was asked to record the reunion. But as opposed to merely filming relationships that were reestablished, Zolten reached out to those planning on attending and asked them to prepare five minutes of memories.

What his subjects shared covered everything “from memories of McKeesport’s businesses to social networks [and] what they did for fun,” he said.

From the interviews, Zolten collected more than 12 hours of material.

Despite the volume of footage, Zolten returned to McKeesport from Phila-delphia several times after the reunion to meet with those who were not at the event.

While visiting both Gemilas Chessed Congregation, which formed in 1886 but moved to White Oak in 1963, and Temple B’nai Israel, a congregation which traces its McKeesport origins to 1912 but moved to White Oak in 2000, Zolten collected additional information pertaining to congregational and Jewish life in the Western Pennsylvanian city.

One particularly telling story of McKeesport’s bygone prominence was shared by Zolten in a 13-minute preview film appearing on Kickstarter, an online crowdsourcing platform.

On Oct. 13, 1962, during a multi-day tour of the Mon Valley, President John F. Kennedy spoke to more than 20,000 attendees gathered in a municipal parking lot on Lysle Boulevard between City Hall and the Daily News Building in McKeesport. While visiting what was then the fifth largest city in Western Pennsylvania, Kennedy addressed the importance of electing Democrats.

“This state already has one Republican senator. Can you tell me why it needs two Republican senators to speak for Pennsylvania?” the then-president remarked.

Among those who traveled to see the president that morning were members of Gemilas Chessed. The significance of this, Zolten noted, was that Kennedy spoke at 10:30 a.m. on the morning of Shemini Atzeret, the holiday immediately following Sukkot.   

“Rabbi Chinn decided that it was very important that all of the Jewish community be there and be present at that rally to show honor to the president,” said Rabbi David Landesman, Chinn’s son-in-law.

So in order to attend the president’s remarks, the congregation interrupted its holiday services.

“We davened shacharis and then we had a break, and we all walked down. We walked over to see the president and to listen to him speak because [Rabbi Chinn] felt that it was important for the Jewish community to be identified not as a peg in a hole that it didn’t fit into or as a tolerated minority, but that the Jewish community in McKeesport was part and parcel of the larger community,” said Landesman.

Preserving the history of McKeesport and its Jewish community is important, said Zolten. “When people pass away it’s lost.”

After successfully raising more than $18,000 to cover editing and film related expenses, Zolten is ready to finish his project.

The goal, he said, is to have the full length documentary completed and ready by the beginning of 2017. At that point, he would like to share it with “as many people as possible.”

One outlet for dissemination will be Jewish film festivals around the country.

He also plans on premiering the movie at the McKeesport Heritage Center and at the Heinz History Center.

“Missing McKeesport,” Zolten’s self-described “labor of love,” serves a critical function, he said. “I believe that preservation of cultures is important and I know that my film is accomplishing that.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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