What’s left when a congregation with a dwindling membership decides to sell its building after 67 years, abandon the generations of memories it represents and move to a new location?
Ask Lynda Heyman, and she’ll give you a simple answer: Family.
Heyman has served on the Parkway Jewish Center’s executive committee, along with Hal Lederman and Lauri Barnett Levine, since its president retired several years ago and the congregation decided to lead by consensus.
The Conservative congregation, located in the city’s Eastern suburbs, recently decided to sell its building and relocate a few miles away to Penn Center in Wilkins Township. The synagogue is being sold to Sri Venkateswara Temple, a nearby Hindu temple, Heyman said.
Parkway will remain viable as a congregation, though, sustaining the relationships formed in the building since it opened in 1955.
“Parkway is so much more than a synagogue,” Heyman said. “It’s a family. It is truly a family. That’s why we have members who have moved away but are still members because they can’t give up on Parkway.” The congregation’s members have been linked through the years by the bar and bat mitzvahs, consecrations, baby namings and confirmations — as well as “the sad stuff,” she added.
“I’m not from Pittsburgh, and I had what I refer to lovingly as the year from hell,” Heyman said. “In 15 months, I lost two aunts, an uncle and both my parents — and Parkway was my family. They helped with the kids. They helped with food. They checked in on me.”
Cantor Henry Shapiro, the spiritual leader of Parkway, said the congregation provided his first and, so far, only pulpit since he became invested as a cantor at Hebrew College in 2012.
Recalling words commonly attributed to Mark Twain, Shapiro said that although the decision was made to sell the building, “the reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.”
When past President Robert Korfin stepped away from his position, Shapiro said, the congregation met and decided to remain open. Then came the pandemic — which brought with it an uptick in participation, thanks to Zoom services.
“We had a minyan every Friday night on Zoom, and a good minyan, too,” Shapiro said. “Before that, we had been missing more often than not. I think that people that were stuck in their homes were missing that and realized that there’s a reason to keep it in their lives.”
Despite members wanting to ensure the congregation remains active, some realities can’t be ignored. There are just over 50 family unit members of Parkway. That’s down from the congregation’s high of several hundred. And, as the numbers have declined, the remaining members have aged.
The building’s upkeep has also proved challenging.
“The building is rather old and there are some repairs that we did and there are some repairs we are looking to do, but with a smaller group it’s hard,” Shapiro said. “This is a big building, and you still have to heat it — and other utilities. We literally have six furnaces. It was becoming a challenge.”
The new space is the right size for Parkway, Shapiro said; and if by chance there is the need for a larger space —a life cycle event or High Holiday service, for instance — the congregation has access to larger rooms in its new home.
Since deciding to sell its building, the congregation has sorted through the six decades of material it has acquired, deciding what to keep and what to discard, Heyman said. They’ve contacted families who donated artwork or other items and offered to return them. The kitchen appliances and supplies are going to a local charity; other items, though, have presented more of a challenge.
“We have more prayer books than we will use because of the size of our membership,” Heyman said. “We reached out to the Jewish community, asking if anyone would like the books, but no one is interested. Unfortunately, we’ve got a lot of artwork around that building that nobody seems to want. We’re looking for homes for it.”
Some items will make the trip a few miles down the road to the congregation’s new home.
“We are taking the ark, the ark doors, the eternal light, the menorahs that were done by one of our members to commemorate the 6 million Jews. We’re taking the yahrzeit plaques and a light that’s here for the 6 million,” Heyman said.
Rick Sternberg, a former president of the congregation, said he’s happy to be staying in the boundary of the Wilkins Township Police Department.
“When I told tell them we were leaving, I said that they are one of the reasons we are staying in Wilkins Township,” Sternberg said.
“We’re part of a wonderful community,” Heyman said. “We’ve tried to be good neighbors. They’ve been good neighbors to us.”
Community and family have been the hallmark of Parkway for nearly seven decades, she added. And members aren’t ready to say goodbye.
“We said, we’ve gotten an offer and have three options,” Heyman recounted. “We can stay here and make do; we can sell the building and close; or we can sell the building and move. Over 87% of the membership said, ‘Let’s sell the building and move.’ They were very clear; they do not want to merge with another synagogue. They want their own space.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.