Tri-City Historical Society and Rauh Jewish Archives detail region’s Jewish roots
HistoryNew Kensington

Tri-City Historical Society and Rauh Jewish Archives detail region’s Jewish roots

Groups partner, share stories, with hope of creating exhibit about New Kensington's Jewish influences

Photo of Fourth Avenue, New Kensington by hartjeff12 via Flickr at
Photo of Fourth Avenue, New Kensington by hartjeff12 via Flickr at

A historically minded group is reminding local residents about a largely forgotten past.

Anthony Palyszeski and James Sabulsky of the Tri-City Historical Society have spent months working with Eric Lidji of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center to unearth stories of Jewish contributions in New Kensington.

The project began when Palyszeski traveled to the History Center to learn more about New Kensington and its early influences. Through a mutual acquaintance, Palyszekski was introduced to Lidji.

Palyszeski told Lidji that he was particularly interested in religious communities and how they influenced New Kensington.

“His eyes sort of went up, and then he said, ‘Oh, this is bigger than you think that is,’” Palyszeski recalled Lidji saying.

Located in Westmoreland County and founded in 1891, New Kensington’s Jewish roots date to the city’s inception.

After the Burrell Improvement Co. bought land along the Allegheny River, “laid out a town and held a highly publicized sale for lots,” Isaac Claster, a Jewish peddler, purchased a plot, according to the Rauh Jewish Archives.

Claster built a clothing store on the parcel in 1892. One year later, landsmen Isaac and Phillips Fisher opened a store in New Kensington. In 1894, a cigar factory was established by David Solobodsky.

Sabulsky, president of the Historical Society, said many New Kensington residents have little idea about how much the city and its commercial life was shaped by its Jewish community.

“A lot of department stores that people shopped in growing up, including my parents, were opened by people of the Jewish culture that had moved up here,” he said.

Palyszeski continued researching New Kensington’s history. He shared his findings with other members of the Historical Society, as well as the Burrell High School’s history club.

Twice a month, the Historical Society meets with five to 15 members of the history club to discuss local and national matters.

“They’ll pick a topic they’re interested in, tell us what it is, do a presentation then we’ll try to connect it to our local area and how it influenced our local area,” Sabulsky said.

Lidji agreed to partner with the groups investigating New Kensington’s Jewish roots.

What the historically minded parties discovered was that even beyond creating stores, Jewish life burgeoned during New Kensington’s early days.

Image of a historic map of New Kensington by Snapshots of The Past via Flickr at

Rauh Jewish Archives records show that formal Jewish life began in the city in 1895 when Rabbi Herman Levendorf read the megillah at Isaac Claster’s home. During the next 10 years, several Jewish families held services in rented rooms in downtown New Kensington. By 1905, New Kensington’s Jewish community had grown to nearly 25 families; and that year, a small synagogue, located on the 1100 block of Third Avenue, was founded.

In 1907, Beth Jacob Congregation was incorporated. Four years later, the Chevra Kadisha Cemetery Association was established. In 1912, a religious school was created.

New Kensington’s Jewish community increased during the next 30 years. By the late 1950s, according to the Rauh Jewish Archives, Beth Jacob “reached its peak membership of 160 families.”

The following decade, however, marked the start of the city’s population decline. Once ALCOA closed its New Kensington plant in 1971, depopulation furthered.

James Kopelman, a lawyer and adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law whose family has been tied to New Kensington for nearly 130 years, recalled the factory’s closure when speaking with Postindustrial in 2019.

“It was like someone cut the heart out of the community,” he said.

Researching New Kensington’s history is a chance to broaden current residents’ understanding, Palyszeski explained.

“I think that people imagine New Kensington as being very one-dimensional. They think about it as being kind of one-sided,” he said. “I am always encouraging people to think about things as complex, including New Kensington and its history.”

Thanks to their research, members of the Historical Society and the history club know more about New Kensington’s Jewish roots. Still, Palyszeski and Sabulsky have bigger plans.

The two are working with Lidji on an exhibit to showcase their findings.

With a goal of opening in June, the exhibit will be housed at the Historical Society’s museum at 1017 5th Ave. in New Kensington.

“We’re just trying to reach every and anybody we can to kind of show a different type of culture that was involved from the beginning,” Sabulsky said.

“What we have today in New Kensington — and beyond in our little area of Western Pennsylvania — we have the Jewish community to thank for,” Palyszeski said.

Sabulsky hopes interested readers will partner with the effort.

“If anyone has any pictures, newspaper articles, or family history or stories pertaining to the Jewish culture in New Kensington, Arnold, Lower Burrell or the Alle Kiski Valley, please feel free to contact us at the Tri-City Historical Society,” he said.

Developing new links furthers an important and meaningful bond, Palyszeski said.

“Young people, old people, it doesn’t really matter to me,” he continued. “People in our area should be more proud of who they are, what their personal histories are and connections.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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