Book: Area synagogues central to lives of Jews settling near industry
Synagogues in the mid-Monongahela Valley served a long and viable role in the lives of Jewish families that comprised their congregations for many years.
That point is emphasized in a new book, “The Synagogues of Central and Western Pennsylvania: A Visual Journey” (Fonthill Media), by Julian H. Preisler, a longtime author, researcher, documentarian and professional genealogist.
“Pennsylvania is unique in that there are/were more synagogues and Jewish congregations found in locations outside of the traditional cities than in any other state,” said Preisler, who resides in Falling Waters, W.Va., outside the Washington, D.C. area.
“This is due to the fact that Pennsylvania, including the Mon Valley area of western Pennsylvania, was highly industrialized, and Jews settled in all the areas where industry was growing. Most opened stores, but many were also involved in the various professions and they were leaders of the synagogues that existed in their communities. Those synagogues were more than houses of worship; they served as centers for the families that made up their congregations with programs, religious and social, for adults and children.”
Preisler’s book includes a focus on synagogues that once existed in Monessen, Charleroi, Donora and Brownsville as well as myriad other towns and cities in western Pennsylvania.
It features 230 vintage and present-day photographs of current, former and many demolished synagogues in a collection of unique and important images. Also included is a section with 32 color photographs.
It is part history book and part travel guide designed to offer the reader an experience in beautiful architecture and unique history. It includes an extensive physical record of Jewish settlement throughout central and western Pennsylvania and details how Jews established congregations, cemeteries and social organizations, “building their synagogues as a testament to their faith and community,” Preisler said.
That concept was exemplified on Sunday, June 7, 1952, when groundbreaking for the new Kneseth Israel synagogue took place on Watkins Street near Grand Boulevard in Monessen.
Rabbi Samuel I. Zakuto said the new structure would replace the 41-year-old synagogue on Schoonmaker Avenue between First and Second streets. The Monessen synagogue was incorporated in 1906.
Herman Albert, chairman of the Building Committee, said new synagogue was building constructed at a cost of $160,000 and was designed by Alexander Sharove of Pittsburgh. The general contractor was Branna Construction Co. of Pittsburgh, which built the then-new Monessen High School and also was building the addition to the Charleroi-Monessen Hospital. Albert said planning for the new synagogue began some eight years earlier by a committee drawn up from some 75 families that comprised the congregation. Significantly, it was the third church building project started with the past year in Monessen, the others being Holy Name Roman Catholic Church on Reed Avenue and St. Spyridon Orthodox Church on Grand Boulevard near the site of the new synagogue.
Dedication of the new Monessen synagogue took place Sunday, May 3, 1954.
On Friday, Sept. 29, 1967, congregations of Kneseth Israel Synagogue and Rodof Shalom Temple of Charleroi announced approval of a merger of the two into a single congregation, Temple Beth Am. The new name, it was explained, meant “house for all.”
The merger united 68 members of the Monessen congregation and 24 from Charleroi and continued to be led by Rabbi Reeve Brenner.
The merger, which had been discussed for many years, actually started about four years earlier with the establishment of a Board of Education to consolidate the education facilities of the congregations only. Consolidation of the Sunday School programs was achieved and eventually included participation by the Ohav Shalom synagogue of Donora as well as those from Charleroi and Monessen.
It was announced that the Monessen facilities would be used by the new congregation. Officials also said the Charleroi temple on Washington Avenue between Fourth and Fifth streets, which was built and organized in 1925, would eventually be sold, with proceeds of the transaction to be used for addition to the temple in Monessen or possibly for the future building of a new community center.
Temple Beth Am in Monessen is still in operation, serving some 30 family members from throughout the Mon Valley.
The Ohav Sholom Synagogue on Second Street in Donora had a long and illustrious history in the community.
The Donora Jewish Community organized in April 1903 and was incorporated in August of that year. It was originally named Donora Hebrew Congregation Ohab Sholom but in 1964 was changed to the Ohav Sholom Congregation of Donora. The synagogue at Second Street was erected in 1911 and congregation membership grew from 22 to 75 families.
Dwindling membership forced made it difficult for the congregation to care for the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery. In October 1993, the synagogue was donated to the Mon Valley Camp Fire Boys and Girls Council.
“Some of the remaining small Jewish congregations in western Pennsylvania towns are hanging on and doing well, but others are making plans for future closure and taking steps to provide for the preservation of their artifacts and history,” Preisler said.
Preisler has an extensive background in archives administration and historic preservation and has been a professional genealogist and researcher for more than 20 years. He has published numerous books about Jewish synagogues and cemeteries and his articles and photographs about Jewish history and life have appeared in several magazines and newspapers.
The son of Holocaust survivors from Germany and the Czech Republic, Preisler is a native of Detroit. He has relatives in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Ron Paglia is a contriburting writer for Trib Total Media.