Temple B’nai Israel to close in May 2025: decision made with ‘dignity’
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Temple B’nai Israel to close in May 2025: decision made with ‘dignity’

'The idea here was to give ourselves enough time to do this in some orderly fashion'

Photograph of groundbreaking of Temple B’nai Israel’s synagogue on Shaw Ave., 1922. (Photo courtesy of Rauh Jewish Archives at Heinz History Center)
Photograph of groundbreaking of Temple B’nai Israel’s synagogue on Shaw Ave., 1922. (Photo courtesy of Rauh Jewish Archives at Heinz History Center)

After more than a century in operation, Temple B’nai Israel is closing.

The White Oak-based congregation will halt operations in May 2025, according to its president, Lou Anstandig.

Finances aren’t the issue.

“We are running out of people,” he said, noting that most of TBI’s members “aren’t young.”

“The people who are in leadership are in their 80s,” Anstandig said. “There just doesn’t appear to be a future without young people to continue making the congregation active.”

TBI traces its roots to 1912 when it was located in McKeesport.

At one time, McKeesport was the “largest small-town Jewish community in western Pennsylvania,” according to Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. During its peak, McKeesport had “more than 6,500 [Jewish residents], four synagogues, numerous auxiliaries and a community religious school with its own board of education.”

Since 2017, the “bulk” of TBI’s records have been at the Rauh. Subsequent donations have arrived since then, Lidji said.

TBI, which was the area’s first liberal congregation, has a humble origin, Anstandig said.

A storeroom on Jenny Lind Street in McKeesport was rented as a sanctuary. Members lived and worked nearby. Rabbi Louis Brav was hired as the congregation’s first rabbi, and Frank R.S. Kaplan served as president. Family dues, including seats, were $15 per year. By the early 1920s, congregants developed plans to build a sanctuary and social hall at the corner of Shaw Avenue and Huey Street in McKeesport. In 1923, the building was dedicated. It remained TBI’s
home for 77 years.

Temple B’nai Israel. (Photo courtesy of Temple B’nai Israel)

In 2000, with Rabbi Danny Schiff as the congregation’s spiritual guide, TBI bought Tree of Life Sfard’s property in White Oak.

The move, and combined congregation, enabled TBI to thrive, according to Anstandig.

Following Schiff’s departure in 2009, Rabbi Paul Tuchman served the congregation until 2020. Rabbi Howie Stein then assumed TBI’s pulpit.

Stein said the recent announcement about closing was met with sadness but not necessarily surprise: “As with many congregations in the old mill towns in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, the congregation has been aging and shrinking and we’ve gotten to the point where we don’t have the people power to keep it running.”

The decision to close was unanimously approved by approximately 60 congregants during a recent meeting, Anstandig said, but during its remaining 18 months, TBI will initiate some “innovative” activities.

Instead of transferring its 50 linear feet of yahrzeit plaques, TBI is creating a website where people can see images of the metal markers.

Many of the members and their families are “scattered all over the U.S.,” Anstandig said. “We want something they can access from any time and any location.”

The site will contain information about deceased members, names of confirmands, photographs, cemetery information, a history of the congregation, a listing of rabbis and presidents, and other pertinent details.

“The idea is that our temple will live on through that website,” Anstandig said.

Establishing a digital presence avoids having to find another congregation willing to accept 50 linear feet of yahrzeit plaques, or even erecting a new structure at TBI’s cemetery, according to the president.

“I know that Uniontown and Monessen did it, but the difference is that they only had several yahrzeit plaques. The cost of building a building and then the ongoing maintenance was kind of mind-boggling,” Anstandig said. “We decided to do something 21st-century that everybody, no matter where they are located, could access.”

Volunteers are creating the site. In the coming months, a professional will be hired to help. Sometime next year, TBI will look into selling its building, according to its president.

Schiff called TBI a “truly cohesive and dynamic community that was unswervingly devoted to serious Judaism.”

“For 112 years, the congregation built robust Jewish identities which countless descendants took with them to many places around the Jewish world. Who could ask for a greater legacy than that?” he said.

Though slated to close next year, TBI has no intention of forgoing upcoming Shabbat services, holidays or other gatherings.

TBI alternates hosting a Friday night or Saturday morning service each week. Between in-person and online attendance, TBI draws about 12-15 people, Stein said.

Given its intention to continue meeting, and the fact that the congregation can pay its bills, why announce it is closing 18 months from now?

Anstandig said the answer is simple: “The idea here was to give ourselves enough time to do this in some orderly fashion and leave with dignity. We didn’t want a situation where it was the last man out, shut the lights.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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