God's Houses: 'The Synagogues of Central and Western Pennsylvania: A Visual Journey'
November 24, 2014 10:53 AM
Former Temple Israel in New Castle
Former Knesseth Israel, Kittaning
Former Ohev Shalom, Tarentum.
Temple Israel, Uniontown.
By Peter Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Other parts of the United States may have larger Jewish populations clustered in major urban centers, but Pennsylvania is exceptional in its legacy of small-town Judaism. Since the 19th century, dozens of mill towns and other small communities have served as homes for small pockets of Jews who ranged from traveling peddlers to established business owners to lawyers and other professionals.
Oil City, Monessen, Altoona, McKeesport, Charleroi, Braddock, Brownsville, Beaver Falls, Mechanicsburg, Lock Haven — these and other small towns were homes to Jews successfully built their lives and made their livings since the 19th century.
While their neighbors were working in mills and mines, many Jews were starting small Main Street businesses such as furniture and clothing stores. And they were building communities anchored around synagogues.
Author Julian H. Preisler has made good use of his longtime passion of photographing and studying these synagogues. “The Synagogues of Central and Western Pennsylvania: A Visual Journey” (Fonthill Media, $19.99) is a concise guide to this heritage.
It’s neatly organized alphabetically by region, and its ease of use disguises what must have been a challenging scholarly odyssey — collecting records, stories and photos from a vast archipelago of synagogues past and present.
Seeing the photos and descriptions of these synagogues side-by-side, one realizes the impressive diversity of architectural styles, particularly when archival photos enable us to follow trends such as the frequent journeys taken by congregations from traditional Orthodoxy to more liberal religious expressions.
Some of the buildings are stark and functionary, while others display architectural flourishes in Byzantine Revival and other styles — ornate cupolas in Donora and Altoona, brilliant stained glass adorning a hexagonal sanctuary in York. A large round arch soars above the ark in Altoona, while stained glass shimmers in a Harrisburg interior. More modern buildings show sleek, streamlined designs, many with creative and deeply moving Holocaust memorials.
The book gives ample due to the more prominent synagogues of Pittsburgh, such as those in the Hill District in the past and in Squirrel Hill in the present, but its greatest contribution is preserving the small-town memories.
For in many cases, memories is the operative term.
The melancholic reality is that much of the distinctive small-town Judaism of Pennsylvania is coming to an end, following the mills into the mists of history. There are admirable exceptions, but many synagogues have closed or greatly scaled back their operations as their populations have dwindled. Small-town synagogues have also lost population to the lure of bigger cities and to such broader trends as assimilation and intermarriage. The vitality of many synagogues in Pittsburgh and immediate suburbs assures a continued presence of Judaism in our region, but in a different way.
Mr. Preisler, a West Virginia resident, includes many archival photos of synagogues that have long since closed, been demolished or converted into churches or other uses.
He also includes many contemporary photos of uneven quality, some of them submitted by synagogue participants. One might have wished for more photos from Mr. Preisler’s own camera, which consistently do yeoman’s work in documenting a passing glory.
Change, he writes is a “natural part of the life of a community: documenting and recording the past for future generations ensures that the change we experience does not negate what came before.”
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.
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