Penn. congregation disbands; flood of memories return

Here’s a post-Passover tale as bitter as maror, yet sweet as kosher-for-Pesach sacramental wine.
How can this be? It came to me as a story on the front page of my hometown’s venerable daily newspaper, sent by the relative who started me on a crusade I now call “correspondence by clipping.”
I happily give credit to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and its reporter Peter Smith for making me aware.
Of course I have personal connections with the subject, Temple Hadar Israel of New Castle, Pennsylvania — not close enough to be a suburb of the big city, but with a Jewish population not large enough to support a congregation of its own any longer. This “Glory of Israel” will soon shut its doors forever. But this Passover, it opened them extra-wide.
THI was already a hybrid, created years ago by the merger of two other very small congregations. Southwestern Pennsylvania had a slew of those back in the ’30s and ’40s, reaching even into the ’50s, when I was first confirmed and then a teacher in one of them. My family’s home was closest to a small shul whose Jewish educational needs were among those coordinated and supervised by an organization created just to serve this regional amalgam.
The classes in each were tiny, as were our synagogues themselves, both in membership and physical size. In B’nai Emunoh, my earliest spiritual home, all our classes met in unwalled but separate areas of the sanctuary, which was the first-floor conversion of a two-story residence. The family owners lived upstairs, and tradition moved us upward for our final school year into its own “sacred” reaches. Looking back, I realize how much of my Judaism I learned right there, in Mrs. Simon’s kitchen.
(By the way: Confirmation itself was a major joint event. All of us prepared separately for it, then came together at a large, centrally located synagogue in the city itself for the big ceremony. Further sidelight: Our gift that year was Preface to Scripture, the newly published book by one of the era’s most influential Reform rabbis, Pittsburgh’s own Solomon Freehof. My autographed copy now “lives” with other seminal Jewish works on a shelf in the University of Pittsburgh’s Israel Heritage Classroom!)
However, time took its inevitable toll. My little home shul has stayed alive and well thanks to Chabad, which partnered with it to move many new, young Jewish families into the old community. But aging stalwarts and the non-return of college graduates to their roots have brought about the demise of most. Hadar Israel, however, is celebrating life throughout the time of its passing, going out in the blaze of the Glory that is its name.
A few days before the start of the Pesach just past, the shul’s Christian neighbors were observing Jesus’ Last Supper — which of course was itself a Passover Seder. And so the synagogue invited them to its own Last Seder, with attendance reaching about 90! One of the guests was a Catholic who had grown up with Jewish neighbors; he was sad to see the small number of congregational children there, he said, but happy that they were part of the ritual and “learning to carry on the tradition as they get older.” Just another juxtaposition of the bitter and the sweet.
So — what happens now? THI has made its peace with the present. The property has been sold, funds directed toward perpetual cemetery maintenance, Torahs moving to new homes — one returning to its origins, for a new synagogue in Poland. Other artifacts will go to the Jewish archives section of Pittsburgh’s Heinz History Center. And the members will travel to congregations east of them in Pittsburgh, or west into Ohio: “There aren’t many choices in between,” one member said. Actually, there are none, as all other nearby shuls have already closed.
But I know from my own experience the important, lasting memories that Hadar Israel’s members will take with them …

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