Take a drive down Lincoln Way, the main drag in White Oak, and get ready to be struck with a wave of comfort — the feeling that if you stop into one of the family-owned restaurants lining the street, you will probably be served by a seasoned waitress with a beehive hairdo and cat-eye glasses on a chain around her neck who will call you “Hon.”
White Oak, just 16 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, is a small community of about 8,000 residents, with quiet tree-lined streets, a low crime rate, low taxes and affordable housing (an 1,800 square-foot, four-bedroom house in good shape goes for about $150,000).
It also happens to have two synagogues, a newly remodeled mikvah and an eruv.
There is a solid Jewish infrastructure in place in this Pittsburgh adjacent suburb, but the community is nonetheless running out of Jews. The borough’s Orthodox congregation, Gemilas Chesed, is down to about 50 members, and the Reform congregation, Temple B’nai Israel has fewer than 100 families on its rolls — many who live outside of White Oak but affiliate with the congregation nonetheless. Most of the members of both congregations are senior citizens.
It is a familiar story: a once-thriving Jewish community in a steel town dwindles when the industry declines and its population migrates to larger urban centers.
But Rabbi Moshe Russell, spiritual leader of Gemilas Chesed, believes that White Oak can and should have a Jewish resurgence.
“We are trying to look forward to see how we can attract people to come to White Oak,” Russell said, citing the community’s many amenities, including the low housing costs and the relatively short 20- to 30-minute commute to Squirrel Hill. Free busses are available to transport children to Squirrel Hill’s day schools, he noted, and snow is plowed from the streets usually before
The community is perfect for a young Jewish family, said Russell, who is originally from Chicago and who has been rabbi at Gemilas Chesed for nine years. In addition to his own family, so far there are two other families with young children at his congregation.
Retirees looking to downsize and get away from the bustle of the city could also find White Oak desirable, he said.
Russell has attended fairs hosted by the Orthodox Union, joining about 30 other “Featured Communities” in an effort to attract Jews to White Oak, but he has “not been successful in getting anyone,” he said. “There is a lot of competition with different cities.”
His next campaign will be to promote White Oak in various Jewish newspapers in other communities, with the hope that people will visit White Oak, maybe over a Shabbat, to see what a great option it is.
Gemilas Chesed was founded in 1886 in the nearby community of McKeesport. In 1963, the congregation moved to a large synagogue in White Oak, where it is still located.
The building is now too big for its current congregation, which attracts only about 15 or 20 people for a Shabbat service and maybe 75 people for the High Holidays, if members bring family from out of town, according to Russell. The building has two beautiful sanctuaries, one which seats about 350 people.
Still, the congregation manages to hold services for Shabbat each week, on Friday night, Saturday morning and Saturday evening. It also holds services twice a day during the week, although “we are starting to struggle with getting a minyan,” Russell said.
The congregation is also “struggling” financially, he said, “but we are making ends meet.”
It is costly to keep a large building running, and if Gemilas Chesed is unable to significantly add to its community, it will have to examine “other options,” said the congregation’s vice president, Larry Perl.
“The issue is people,” Russell said. “At some point, if you don’t have a minyan, you’re out of business.”
Although its membership has declined, those members who are left are “dedicated to getting this going,” said Perl, a 50-year member of Gemilas Chesed.
White Oak, Perl said, “is a growing community. It’s not deteriorating. This is really like a best kept secret. I think if people found out what kind of community this is, they would want to move here.”
Just a five-minute drive from Gemilas Chesed is Temple B’nai Israel, a Reform congregation that also had its beginning in McKeesport, 105 years ago. It moved to its current location in White Oak in 2000, having purchased its current building from Tree of Life/Sfard.
Nonetheless, “demographics is the big challenge,” Tuchman explained. “This is an older group.”
The building, he noted, has no classrooms and no religious school.
The majority of Temple B’nai Israel’s members do not live in White Oak but in Pittsburgh, Fox Chapel and Monroeville.
Shabbat services at Temple B’nai Israel are held once each week, alternating between Friday night and Saturday morning. The services typically draw between nine and 25 people, according to Tuchman.
Although he knows of no Jewish families planning to move to White Oak, Tuchman, a native Arizonian who has been at B’nai Israel for nine years, does think it is a great option.
“It’s a quiet, comfortable place to live, and when I want to go to Pittsburgh, which is often, I go,” he said. “I like that situation a lot.”
In addition to Shabbat and holiday services, Temple B’nai Israel also hosts some continuing adult education programs and social events.
“We throw good parties at this place,” he said. “A synagogue is a place to pray, study and socialize. We do ‘socialize’ really well.”
Tuchman does think it is possible to revitalize Jewish life in White Oak, but believes it may be a long time coming.
“I think that when and if Pittsburgh becomes too expensive, more people will be looking for homes in smaller communities like this one, but I think it’s going to take a while,” he said. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at