At one time, the Mon Valley had vibrant Jewish communities in Donora, Monongahela, Monessen and Belle Vernon. Regrettably, as the congregations dwindled over the years, the synagogues closed their doors.
Today, only the Monessen congregation remains.
Thanks to the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, the history of these and other Jewish communities in Western Pennsylvania has a chance to be recorded and preserved.
On April 3, the Heinz History Center staged a public program that explored Jewish life in Donora, Latrobe, New Castle, Sharon and Farrell and Uniontown, towns that have already been extensively researched.
“The Jewish History and Archives Program has been around since 1989 collecting congregation records, business and organization records and artifacts,” said Eric Lidji, archival consultant for the Heinz History Center.
“As the congregations closed their doors, they usually sent their records to the project, but a couple of years ago we noticed an acceleration of closures. Realizing there was a trend, we decided to become proactive and go into the communities to find historic documents, determine their relevance and preserve them, he said.
Donora is one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Mon Valley. A small group of Orthodox Jews from Hungary settled there shortly after the town incorporated in 1901.
The newly arrived immigrants chartered the Hebrew Congregation Ohav Sholom on Aug, 24, 1903, and established a cemetery in Carroll Township the following year. By 1906, Donora’s Jewish population numbered approximately 164. By 1919, the congregation had grown close to 300 and peaked in the 1920s with 75 families according to congregation member Arnold Hirsch.
Later Jewish arrivals from Lithuania, Poland and Germany led to heated skirmishes with the Orthodox Hungarians over ritual practices and educational methods, although the congregation observed strict Orthodox guidelines and offered a daily cheder (religious school).
According the Rauh Jewish History Program website, the members of Ohav Sholom worshipped in rented rooms before breaking ground on a $15,000 synagogue on Thompson Street in 1911. The two-story building had classrooms downstairs and a sanctuary upstairs.
The sanctuary was designed with a bima (platform) in the center of the room and a stage, up front. During a renovation in the 1930s, the basement was converted into a social hall and kitchen.
The renovation sparked a debate within the congregation, because some of the more religious members felt it would be inappropriate to allow card games in the building. According to Hirsch, Rabbi Aaron Mordechai Ashinsky of Pittsburgh was brought to Donora to mediate a solution. After a lengthy communal meeting, he determined that members should be prohibited from playing card games within a section of the social hall directly beneath the ark containing the Torah scrolls. Card playing was permitted everywhere else in the small room.
A second renovation in 1965 removed the central bima and only used the front stage. At that time, the congregation was officially renamed Ohav Sholom Congregation of Donora.
Sidney Ackerman of Carroll Township was born and raised in Donora, the son of a meat cutter who had a number of businesses, mainly grocery stores. Bar mitzvahed at Ohav Shalom, he also belonged to the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, a Jewish youth organization that featured a lot of sports play including basketball, softball and football.
“Other Jewish youth from neighboring Monongahela, Belle Vernon and Monessen joined with us, and we went to a lot of tournaments in Pittsburgh,” he said. “You can still see our trophies in a case at the Monessen synagogue, the only one left in the mid-Mon Valley.”
Ackerman remembers the Donora congregation being very active, holding dances, socializing and supporting a full time rabbi. After he got married, he and his wife continued to live in Monessen for the next 10 years. Following the birth of their two sons, Mark and Bruce, they wanted to give them a Jewish education and joined the more vibrant Monessen congregation where the rabbi prepared the boys for their bar mitzvahs.
The Jewish population of Donora declined after World War II. The Donora Zinc Works closed in 1957 after years of lawsuits stemming from a deadly smog incident in 1948 and the increasing obsolescence of its industrial process. The American Steel and Wire Company mill closed in 1962.
“Not many Jewish men worked in the mills,” Lidji said. “Most were businessmen, professionals and government workers. When the town started to struggle economically, the businesses began to feel the effects because they catered to the mill workers.”
After World War II, Lidji said many of the soldiers returned home with a larger world view and began looking for better opportunities outside of Donora. As the congregation declined in numbers, remaining members started to attend services in adjacent communities.
Ohav Shalom Congregation closed in 1993, when the congregation disbanded (it had been reduced to three members at the time) and donated its synagogue to the Campfire Boys and Girls of Mon Valley.
Thanks to several grants last year, the Rauh Jewish History Program was able to document the history of the five communities discussed in the April 3 presentation at the history center. Although the goal of the program is to document the history of every Jewish community in Western Pennsylvania, the project is limited by time and resources.
At the moment, the program has a little financial windfall left over from last year’s grants and will continue documenting Jewish communities, all the while trying to secure additional grants and riase funds.
“As we continue the program, we hope that we will discover people with additional archival material such as photos, documents and artifacts,” Ledji said.
Those wanting additional information on the program or to discuss donating materials should contact the Rauh Jewish History Program at the Heinz History Center at 412-454-6406.
“Preserving the history of Jewish communities in the region is very important because, unless it’s preserved, it will vanish,” said Susan Melnick, private project consultant from Pittsburgh
“The Donora and Homestead congregations closed their doors in the early 1990s and gave us their records, which we were able add to our website. Hopefully, with additional funding, we will be able to continue our researches and become proactive with the remaining Jewish communities.”