White Oak temple celebrates centennial
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Marjorie Baum said the Yiddish slang word "hamish" best describes why she and her husband, Alan, belong to Temple B'nai Israel in White Oak when there are synagogues nearer their Strip District home.
"It means cozy and homey and friendly and comfortable," she said. "It is why we like it so much there."
The couple, who both are in their late 50s, will be on hand Aug. 18-19 as the temple at 2025 Cypress Drive, celebrates its 100th anniversary.
The festivities begin with a 10 a.m. service on Aug. 18 open to the community, followed by a Shabbat luncheon.
On Aug. 19, a dinner will be held at the Stratigos Banquet Centre, 131 Colonial Manor Drive, North Huntingdon. Cocktails and hors d'oeuvres will be served at 5 p.m., followed at 6 p.m. by dinner and entertainment.
Keynote speaker will be Rabbi Emeritus Walter Jacob of Rodef Shalom in Oakland. He heads the Associated American Jewish Museums and the Abraham Geiger College in Germany, the first rabbinic seminary in central Europe since the Holocaust.
The evening will also feature a 30-minute video tribute to the congregation's "Over 80" members who are age 80 and older, such as Maxine Stein, 83, of McKeesport, a 56-year member who called the temple "the center of things" in her life.
Temple B'nai Israel, with a membership of 130 family units and governed by a 15-member board of trustees, is a traditional reform congregation in that it holds that Judaism and Jewish traditions should be modernized and compatible with engagement in the neighboring culture.
"We are very interested in social action," lifelong member Lindi Kendal, 73, of White Oak said of temple activities like collecting shoes for the needy worldwide, supporting local food banks and knitting afghans for nursing home residents.
Temple B'nai Israel was founded in 1912 in McKeesport, with the first services held in a building on Jenny Lind Street. A few years later, the temple was built at 536 Shaw Ave. with seating for 600.
Lifelong member Murray Siegel, 88, walked to the temple once a week for Sunday school, twice a week for Hebrew school, and for services on Friday evening and Saturday morning.
"My life was centered on the temple," the McKeesport man said.
In 2000, with a membership of roughly 190 family units, Temple B'ani Israel was approached by the Tree of Life Sfard to buy their property in White Oak, which it did. Almost all of the Tree of Life members then joined Temple B'nai Israel.
Temple president Louis Anstandig, 73, of White Oak, who was also president at the time of the relocation, said the move was made because most members live in or nearer to White Oak than McKeesport and the new facility was more accommodating with seating for about 100. For special occasions, the curtains can be folded to extend the sanctuary into the social hall for seating up to 400.
Today the biggest challenge is new, younger membership, immediate past president Dick Leffel, 67, of Monroeville said.
He estimated members' average age at older than 70.
Besides the societal trend away from organized religion, the temple lost members with the decline of the steel industry in the Mon Valley. Without jobs to attract new residents, there will be fewer new members, he said.
As it was becoming more difficult to find someone willing to make a two-year commitment as president, a five-member executive committee was formed in early 2011 in which each member serves as president for six months, with the other members sharing responsibilities.
Regardless of the changes over the years, the core of Temple B'nai Israel is unwavering as a center for everything that matters: family, friends and spiritual life, Mr. Siegel said.
"My children have said, 'why don't you move your bed there?'... I'm there almost very day," Mrs. Kendal said. Her four grandparents were temple founders.
"It's just exciting to be part of something that lasted this long when you are aware of so many congregations that ceased to exist," Mr. Anstandig said.
"We have managed to stay active and we think we still have a very bright future."
Reservations for both the lunch and dinner are $100. Lunch only is $18. To order, call 412-678-6181. Deadline is Tuesday.
First Published August 9, 2012 4:56 am