One of the saddest moments of my childhood was watching my father performing his duties as treasurer of his congregation.
Why was that so sad? Because, aside from his checkbook, there was no congregation. Congregation B’nai Abraham Anshe Sfard of Clairton, his hometown, had ceased to exist many years ago. All that was left was the checkbook, some money in the bank, and a few elderly members who met occasionally to discuss how to spend what was left.
It wasn’t his most pleasant job. After all, he had grown up in that congregation, become a bar mitzva there, met his future wife there — my mother — and became very close with his future father-in-law, the president of the congregation.
He liked to tell stories about his congregation, how the members used to enter the synagogue, which had been a church before they purchased the building, through the kitchen door because the sanctuary didn’t face east, so they placed the ark up against the main entrance to correct the problem.
Or how his bar mitzva party consisted of nothing but a kiddush following the service. Then everyone went home. (That was one of his favorite stories.)
Finally, he recounted a split in the congregation during the Depression over some members’ ability to pay dues. He remembered how his father, who would die before Dad reached his 10th birthday, would take him by the hand Friday nights and Saturday mornings and walk to a storefront on Miller Avenue, where the rebel worshippers held their services on the second floor. That story had a happy ending, though. The congregation eventually reunited. Some congregations never do.
But all that was in the past. Now, as an adult, he sat at the kitchen table balancing that checkbook — a remnant of what his congregation used to be.
What’s truly sad about this story is how far from unusual it is. It has been repeated many times here around western Pennsylvania and West Virginia — Clairton, Glassport, Duquesne, McKeesport, Braddock, Canonsburg, Charleroi, Donora, Brownsville, Kittanning, Beaver Falls, Midland, Ellwood City — and a host of other communities. Small-town congregations are struggling for survival.
Just last week, the Chronicle reported that another one, Temple Beth Israel in Steubenville, would soon pass into history following High Holy Day services in September.
And it won’t be the last. As David Sarnat of the Jewish Community Legacy Project, told our staff writer, Toby Tabachnick, “We project that in the next 10 to 20 years, there could be 100 of these communities that are no longer able to function.”
And that may be a conservative estimate.
It’s unrealistic to believe all small town congregations can survive. It is realistic to expect that some can — and should. And that should be a goal of all Jews, in and out of Pittsburgh.
There’s a good reason to help them survive, and it has nothing to do with nostalgia. People who have never met a Jew in their lives are less likely to understand us and more likely to believe the worst about us — if there are no Jews to explain who we are, what we believe and, perhaps importantly, what we don’t believe.
You can say the small-town communities are the Jewish ambassadors to an entire demographic of people who have little contact with us.
So how can the big communities help the small ones? Each community has different needs and goals; I propose the best way to help them is to listen to them, dialogue with them on a regular basis, maybe at a regularly scheduled forum. By the way, what they need isn’t always money; some small-town congregations have been nicely endowed by their previous generations. What they always need are human resources — speakers, advocates, and fresh ideas. Judaism is stronger when it thrives in our smallest towns as well as our biggest cities.
(Lee Chottiner, executive editor of the Chronicle, can be reached at email@example.com.)