On a Sunday morning in November in New Fort, Pennsylvania, 18 people gathered in a Jewish cemetery for an unveiling ceremony. American Jews typically maintain this kind of occasion a yr after a individual dies to mark the set up of their headstone, and to share reminiscences of the deceased. This occasion was totally different as a result of it marked the revealing of a headstone for a congregation, or—extra exactly—for its ritual objects.
A couple of minutes earlier than 11 a.m., the automobiles started arriving. Down the hill, across the bend into the little cemetery, pals parked beneath the clear, sunny sky close to the spot the place that they had gathered almost one yr earlier, when their congregation formally disbanded they usually held a burial ceremony for lots of their sacred gadgets. A flat granite slab had now been put in beside the muddy burial website, the place grass had nonetheless not taken root. The textual content, etched into the slab’s floor learn: “Final burial of books and artifacts of Temple Hadar Israel.”
The phrase “final” signifies the top of the Jewish historical past in New Fort, Pennsylvania. Jews settled right here on the flip of the final century together with a wave of different European immigrants who arrived in Western Pennsylvania, drawn by a booming financial system. The Jews who got here to this a part of the state principally concentrated in Pittsburgh, the place some 13,000 settled by 1900; the town’s Jewish inhabitants peaked at 55,000 in 1930. Others made their houses within the small cities that radiated out from this city middle.
At their peak within the 1950s and ’60s, greater than 40 small cities—spreading east to the Allegheny Mountains, and west to the Pennsylvania-Ohio border—have been residence to thriving Jewish communities. Some, like New Fort, grew giant sufficient to help two synagogues, Temple Israel (Reform) and Hadar Israel (conventional). Then with deindustrialization, got here financial decline. Grown youngsters left their hometowns and didn’t return, leaving ageing and dwindling populations behind.
New Fort’s Jews responded by merging their two congregations into one. The newly shaped congregation was named Temple Hadar Israel, and affiliated with the Conservative motion. Nonetheless, the consolidation solely briefly solved the issue of shrinking numbers. By 2017 the congregation’s members agreed that there have been merely not sufficient of them to proceed functioning.
At present fewer than 10 small-town synagogues stay open in Western Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt. With so many shutting their doorways, Temple Hadar Israel just isn’t alone in dealing with a glut of sacred gadgets, which they’re scrambling to cross on to others who may keep on their communal legacies.
New Citadel’s congregation created rituals to ease them via this weighty activity. Starting in 2015, when members of Temple Hadar Israel discovered it more and more troublesome to collect a minyan for prayers, they started discussing plans for winding down operations. The group, which has come to see itself very similar to a dwelling organism that’s born, grows, withers, and ultimately dies, engaged in a deliberate end-of-life planning course of. They enlisted Jewish Group Legacy Challenge, which helps dwindling congregations guarantee their legacies, catalog their histories, and responsibly divvy up their belongings.
Temple Hadar Israel bought its constructing in 2015, though members continued to satisfy within the sanctuary till disbanding two years later; the congregation divested of its movable property, together with its eight remaining Torah scrolls. New houses have been discovered for every with the assistance of JCLP, which retains a record of Jewish establishments in want of a scroll, and helps to determine these establishments that could be in a place to donate. Three went to summer time camps, one to a Reform temple in South Carolina, one to a Progressive congregation in Warsaw, one to a Houston synagogue that suffered injury in Hurricane Harvey, and one to a tiny group in Indonesia.
On a Saturday morning in February 2018, Temple Hadar Israel members boarded a rented bus in New Citadel, and took the hour-long journey to Pittsburgh to current their final remaining Torah in a formal, public ceremony. It was transferred to Pittsburgh’s Hillel Jewish College Middle, which serves as a social and non secular hub for Jewish college students at Carnegie Mellon College, the College of Pittsburgh, Duquesne College, and a few of the town’s different small faculties.
Deena Mirow Epstein and her sister Ina Silver parade the Temple Hadar Israel Torah into Pittsburgh’s Hillel Jewish College Middle, with college students following them. (Photograph: Alanna Cooper)
A gaggle of almost 200 college students, college administration, and visitors gathered within the Hillel constructing for the occasion. The New Citadel elders lined up on the entrance of the massive social corridor, handed the Torah from one to the subsequent, after which into the palms of Hillel’s younger leaders. Deena Mirow Epstein, a former member of the New Fort congregation who had a particular household connection to the Torah, rose earlier than the gang to recount the small print of its layered previous.
Studying a textual content she had ready by piecing collectively info from previous newspaper clippings, notes from her mother and father, and her personal reminiscences, Epstein advised a story that started virtually a century in the past, in a small city on the opposite aspect of the Atlantic.
Earlier than immigrating to New Citadel, Epstein defined, her mother and father lived in Suwalki, Poland, as soon as residence to some 6,000 Jews. Within the late 1930s, simply earlier than the Nazi invasion, the couple escaped to america. Most of their kinfolk who stayed behind have been killed.
However a cousin, Nochem Adelson, was among the many only a few who survived. He returned to Suwalki after the struggle and rebuilt his life there. Thirty years handed. Then, whereas renovating his previous farmhouse, Nochem opened a wall and to his shock, a Torah scroll wrapped in a field got here tumbling out. He understood the importance of the Torah, however didn’t know what to do with it. In Suwalki, there weren’t even sufficient Jews for a minyan to learn from it. He contacted his cousins Janet and Joseph (Epstein’s mother and father) in the USA, considering they might use it.
By the point the couple acquired this information, that they had two grown daughters, Joseph owned a thriving jewellery enterprise, they usually lived comfortably amongst New Citadel’s vibrant Jewish inhabitants. Nonetheless, the close to complete lack of the Jewish group of their youth had left a horrible void. Some measure of consolation was provided once they learn of Nochem’s discovery.
Via bribery and a few goodwill, Janet and Joseph discovered a solution to get the Torah smuggled out of communist Poland and into their palms. When it arrived in New Citadel in 1974, the Torah was welcomed into their synagogue amid celebration and tears. Details about this occasion was preserved in New Fort Information. “Cry, cry, cry, and cry,” Janet informed a reporter, “Everybody was very emotional.”
Now, Epstein was emotional as she completed her speech and watched one of many college students chant from that very scroll. “My mother would have loved to see all this,” she informed me, wiping her eyes. And Sam Bernstine, Temple Hadar Israel’s former president chimed in: “We have no children in New Castle to pass on our legacy,” he stated, however right here on the College of Pittsburgh campus, “we know the youth will treasure it.”
A hefty picket sculpture, as soon as mounted on the wall of New Fort’s synagogue, tells a totally different story of the group’s previous. Carved from wooden, and standing about 5 ft excessive, two lions face one another, their eyes bulging and tongues extending out. Between their ornate paws, the pair holds a giant set of tablets, upon which the Ten Commandments are engraved, and painted in gold.
Synagogue data, housed within the Rauh Jewish Archives of Pittsburgh’s Heinz Historical past Middle, point out that the Younger Women Benevolent Society of Tifereth Israel Synagogue (an earlier incarnation of Temple Hadar Israel) bought the sculpture. On the event of the congregation’s transfer into a new constructing in 1909, the group devoted it, and had it put in above the ark that housed the Torah scrolls.
Members of B’nai Abraham Congregation and Temple Hadar Israel pose beside the newly refurbished Lions of Judah sculpture. Pictured: Sam Bernstine (backside left) with Michael Kraus beside him, and Sybil Epstein (prime row, third from left). (Photograph: David Hoffman)
Lions have lengthy served as symbols of Jewish royalty and power. They’ve been used throughout a lot of the Jewish world to embellish synagogue arks, textiles, flooring mosaics, and even gravestones. However in america on the flip of the 20th century, they took on a new inventive fashion. Japanese European Jewish immigrants innovated a recent visible vocabulary for their lion sculptures, influenced by their prevalent position as craftsmen within the carousel-horse business (as illustrated within the 2007 American People Artwork Museum exhibition Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses).
However synagogue aesthetics underwent a radical change within the post-WWII period. Tifereth Israel bought its 1909 construction and constructed a new, trendy constructing. Modern design sensibilities might hardly accommodate the ornately sculpted lions. However, the congregation didn’t abandon them.
Fairly than putting them entrance and middle, above the glossy new ark within the trendy sanctuary, the congregation put the lions a bit out of the best way within the social corridor. On Excessive Holidays, when the sanctuary crammed with worshippers, the accordion wall that cordoned off the social corridor was drawn open. Congregants who took seats within the overflow space might lookup, and see the lions framing the holy ark from afar.
Artist Michael Kraus was a type of congregants. As a youngster, he spent lengthy hours throughout many spiritual providers considering the fierce lions, which appeared to be defending God’s phrases between their paws. Later, their inventive affect seeped into a few of his personal sculptures, crafted of stone and bronze.
When Kraus—who has since moved to Pittsburgh—heard that his childhood synagogue can be closing its doorways, he was involved that the lion sculpture “would get left behind,” or “broken into pieces,” as a result of its cumbersome measurement and weight made it troublesome to maneuver. However members of B’nai Abraham Congregation in Butler, Pennsylvania, 30 miles east of New Fort, ensured that their legacy would reside on.
They raised funds and made preparations to have it eliminated with a hydraulic carry, refurbished, and mounted behind their modest synagogue. On the dedication ceremony in August 2017, Kraus spoke concerning the sculpture’s historical past. Michal Grey-Schaffer, B’nai Abraham’s cantor, sang a piece of music she composed for the event, impressed by a verse in Genesis 49 that has Jacob blessing his son Judah by evaluating him to a lion, “king of the beasts.”
For members of the now-defunct Temple Hadar Israel, nice care and power was put into creating switch ceremonies for their Torah scrolls and lion sculpture. “Our bits and pieces are now scattered among other communities,” Bernstine mirrored. However so many different objects, which had no biographies hooked up to them, have been merely orphaned. With synagogues throughout the area shutting downs, museums, archives, and different congregations are merely uninterested or unable to undertake ubiquitous gadgets like menorahs, spiritual books, prayer shawls, or memorial plaques.
Confronted with the query of how one can dispose of those, New Fort’s congregation turned to the Jewish customized of burying sacred objects. On Dec. 31, 2017, the day after their ultimate Shabbat providers, members and buddies gathered within the Tifereth Israel Cemetery, the place a pit within the floor had been opened. Deep inside, some 20 bins nestled subsequent to one another, containing prayer books, dedicatory plaques and unclaimed yahrzeit plaques, prayer shawls, and velvet textiles that had coated the Torah ark and the reader’s tables. Huddled across the deep gap, the group recited the Mourner’s Kaddish and delivered speeches akin to eulogies.
Lest the buried gadgets merely be forgotten as soon as interred, a stone was put in on the bottom to mark them. On the unveiling ceremony this previous November, Rabbi Howard Stein, who officiated, opened by explaining, “We are gathered to remember what has passed here and what continues to live in our memories.” He then learn Psalm 121: “The Lord will guard your going and coming now and forever …” an applicable textual content to recall the Jewish group’s arrival in New Fort greater than 100 years in the past, in addition to to acknowledge its departure and scattering from this city at the moment.
Because the temporary service got here to an finish, synagogue member Sybil Epstein positioned a small clean rock on the headstone to mark her go to, then held up a tissue to her giant glasses to catch a few tears. “We are the remnant, the last Jews here,” she declared, wanting round on the little group. “But when we are gone, and people come to our cemetery to visit their ancestors, they will see our stone here. And they will know that we were a group that really cared, and mattered.”
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