Charleroi, Pa. was settled in 1890 and incorporated as a borough in 1891. A year later, the Charleroi Plate Glass Company built its plant in the town. Charleroi soon became one of the most important glassmaking centers in the world, nicknamed “Magic City.”
Jewish families began settling in Charleroi shortly after the founding of the borough. A notice in the October, 29, 1897 issue of the Jewish Criterion reports on the wedding of a young couple in the Masonic Hall in Charleroi, officiated by a rabbi from Pittsburgh. The most successful early Jewish resident of Charleroi was Sam Friedman, who immigrated to Scranton, Pa. from Galicia during the 1890s to work in a factory. According to local historian Jacob Feldman, in his book The Jewish Experience in Western Pennsylvania, A History: 1755-1945, “He arrived in Pittsburgh in 1898 and unsuccessfully sought work in McKeesport. He walked to Charleroi where he was hired at a grocery store. Soon he bought a horse and wagon to peddle fruit. Entering the junk business a year later, he bought a scrapyard with his first $1,000 in savings a prospered. By 1918, he was one of the wealthiest men in Charleroi and was on the board of directors of three banks.”
The early Jewish residents of Charleroi made several attempts to start a congregation. A directory in the 1919-1920 edition of the American Jewish Yearbook included a listing for Beth Israel Congregation of Charleroi at 328 Washington Avenue, established in 1907. At the time, the Jewish population of Charleroi was 75, according to the yearbook. A notice in the March 17, 1916 issue of the Criterion reported that Friedman and others had recently organized a congregation called Beth Jacob and were raising money to build a synagogue. A notice in the October 12, 1917 issue of the Criterion reported on recent party held at Tree of Life Congregation of Charleroi. These early congregations appear to be Orthodox and many included the same families, suggesting repeated attempts to start a viable congregation, rather than competing efforts.
A group of liberally minded Jews began renting the third floor of the National Bank Building at Fifth Street and Fallowfield Avenue as early as 1914 to use for worship and for a religious school, according to a survey from the Works Progress Administration Church Archives. The group was lay-led throughout the year and hired a rabbinic student either from Hebrew Union College or the Jewish Theological Seminary to lead services during the High Holidays. The group chartered Rodef Sholom Congregation in late 1924 and broke ground on a synagogue on Washington Avenue near the intersection with Fifth Street in late 1925. The congregation included members from nearby Bentleyville, Pa., which had too small of a Jewish population to support an independent congregation.
The Jewish community in Charleroi often partnered with Jewish communities in other towns along the Monongahela River to create Jewish organizations. The Monongahela Valley Y.M.H.A. was founded in 1915, and the Monongahela Valley Y.W.H.A. was in existence as early as 1916. By 1921, the religious school program of the National Council of Jewish Women was operating a “Monongahela Valley Section” with students from Charleroi, Donora and Monessen. The towns later operated separate religious schools under the auspices of the Southwestern District of Pennsylvania Jewish Religious Schools program.
The Jewish population of Charleroi gradually declined following the construction of the synagogue. The American Jewish Yearbook listed a population of 300 in its 1928-1929 edition, 225 in its 1940-1941 edition and 144 in its 1951 edition. In 1967, Rodef Shalom Congregation merged with Knesseth Israel Congregation in nearby Monessen, Pa., just across the Monongahela River, to form Temple Beth Am.