New Light Congregation has resolved to remain put. After three moves in three years, the Conservative congregation unanimously voted to stay at Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill.
The Jan. 5 decision reflects a desire on New Light Congregation’s part “not to return to the Tree of Life building but instead to seek a long-term arrangement with Beth Shalom and make that our permanent home,” said Stephen Cohen, New Light’s co-president. “Beth Shalom has been very gracious and welcoming and responsive to our needs and requests.”
Remaining at Beth Shalom represents a new chapter in New Light’s century-plus history. The congregation, which was formerly called Roberts Street Ohel Jacob Synagogue, resided in the Hill District for nearly 60 years. In 1957, New Light purchased the lot on the corner of Beechwood Boulevard and Forbes Avenue, and remained there until 2017, when due to “a declining and aging membership” as well as “an aging building” the congregation decided to sell its building, noted Cohen in a previous statement to the Chronicle.
In November 2017, after reaching an agreement with Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, members of New Light marched their Torah scrolls up Denniston Avenue and rededicated a new home on the corner of Shady and Wilkins Avenues.
“To us, New Light has never been about the building. We are family — sharing simchas and sorrows, studying and learning — together,” said co-president Barbara Caplan in a statement at the time.
Following the Oct. 27, 2018, attack at the Tree of Life Building, New Light resumed meeting inside Beth Shalom’s Helfant Chapel. Since then, New Light has held regular services at Beth Shalom, as well as transferred congregational items such as artwork and yahrzeit plaques to the venue.
In October 2019, a Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh-convened independent committee approached New Light about returning to the Tree of Life building, which has remained closed since the 2018 attack.
The committee extended a request for space requirements and other conditions, but after discussing the possible return, New Light rejected the suggestion, explained Cohen: “We met in November and then again in December and the decision was that there were no conditions, that we really would prefer not to return to the building but instead to stay at Beth Shalom.”
“There were many reasons cited for this decision,” added Cohen in a statement. “Some members are unwilling to go back into the Tree of Life building, regardless of its future structure. Others cited the fact that because New Light Congregation has had three homes in three years it would be emotionally and financially draining to move again. In addition, members were unwilling to deal with the uncertainty and potentially lengthy process as Tree of Life finalizes its plans for the site’s future.”
Cohen said he informed members of the independent committee, as well as representatives of Tree of Life, following the congregation’s Jan. 5 vote.
“This decision will not impact the long-term relationship between Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha and New Light. We will continue to collaborate on joint Men’s Club Sunday services as well as other joint programming efforts,” said Caplan in a statement. “In addition, New Light will continue to participate in the Tree of Life rebuilding effort because the site vision includes a memorial. All of us at New Light wish the very best to our friends at Tree of Life and their future plans.”
“We don’t see this as changing anything in terms of our relationship,” echoed Cohen. “It simply speaks to where we think it’s best for us to be residing permanently as a congregation.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.