A Jewish community emerged in Duquesne in the years after 1891, when Andrew Carnegie purchased and later enlarged the Duquesne Steel Works. A group organized a congregation in Duquesne in 1897, according to a 1925 community history found in the cornerstone of the synagogue. In April 1901, they chartered Beth Jacob Congregation. The charter members were Lewis Beck, Barnard Adler, Arthur Klein, George Wintner, Sam Beck, B. Burstin, M. Neiman, B. Shrage, I. Klein, Adolf Jacobs, William Rosenthal, Edward Brown, Sam Klein, B. Yarmy and Louis Rosenberg.
Beth Jacob Congregation held services at Conlin’s Hall on East Duquesne Avenue until 1907, when it built a red brick synagogue on the corner of S. First Street and Viola Avenue, according to a 1940 survey from the Works Progress Administration Church Archives. (The 1925 congregational history puts the location “two lots south of corner South First and Library Place.” A 1908 article in the Pittsburgh Press gives “First street and Whitfield avenue [sic]” as the location.) The synagogue cost either $15,000 or $28,000, according to two differing newspaper accounts from the time. According to the Press, Beth Jacob had 600 members at the time of the dedication, although other accounts suggest the Jewish population of Duquesne never surpassed 400 until after World War I.
At a dedication ceremony on the afternoon of September 6, 1908, congregants marched from Conlin’s Hall to the new synagogue, where Building Committee Chairman Martin Weiss handed the keys to President J. S. Goodman. Alexander Markovsky opened the doors for the first time. Attendees included Rabbi Aaron M. Ashinsky of Congregation Beth Jacob in Pittsburgh and Rev. Dr. J. Leonard Levy of Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh.
Beth Jacob Congregation opened a 2.5-acre cemetery in Mifflin Township in 1904 and organized a Ladies Aid Society in 1905, according to the WPA survey, and established B’nai B’rith Lodge No. 652 in 1909, according to the American Jewish Yearbook. (The Duquesne lodge appears to have been dissolved before 1919, at which point members joined McKeesport’s Lodge No. 573 for a time.) During the 1920s, Duquesne had a Young Men’s Hebrew Association, a Young Women’s Hebrew Association and a local branch of the Southwestern District of Pittsburgh Jewish Religious Schools program.
Although the Jewish population of Duquesne was relatively small, and Beth Jacob considered itself to be traditional, a second and seemingly more Orthodox congregation called Ahavath Moshe Anshe Sfard was organized in 1911. The second congregation disbanded in the course of the following decade, and no records have survived.
The population Duquesne doubled over the first two decades of the 20th century. While the overall population slowed in the 1920s, the Jewish population greatly increased during the same time. The American Jewish Yearbook listed a population of 350 in its 1918-1919 edition and a population of 920 in its 1928-1929 edition. A comparison of population growth figures suggests that nearly one-quarter of all new Duquesne residents in the 1920s were Jewish.
A thriving commercial district on First Street included many Jewish-owned businesses such as Escowitz’s (furniture), Adler’s (menswear), Miller’s (menswear), Benowitz’s (ladies’ wear), Grace’s (ladies’ wear), Kessler’s (jewelers), Weinerman’s (children’s shoes), the Eagle Drug store and the Plaza Theatre. The town also had a Jewish-owned grocery store and car dealership. Duquesne was home to many Jewish professionals, including doctors, dentists, a lawyer, a real estate agent, a librarian and a schoolteacher. Several of these businessmen and professionals organized an informal social group called “The Ten Guys.” With their wives, they purchased a plot of land outside of Ligonier and built a small lodge that each member’s family could use for a portion of the year.
Over time, some Jewish business owners settled in McKeesport or Pittsburgh while maintaining their stores in Duquesne. While most of the older Jewish families in Duquesne lived in the city center, some lived in a newer section called Duquesne Place.
The original Beth Jacob synagogue was destroyed in a fire during Passover 1922. The congregation built a second synagogue in 1924 at 17 S. Second Street, across the street from City Hall and a fire station. They dedicated the building in 1925 and ceremonially burned the mortgage in 1948. The synagogue had separate seating for men and woman in the sanctuary, classrooms and a mikveh (ritual bath) on a lower level.
The first rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation was Rabbi Alfred (or Aaron, according to some sources) Levine, who served from 1900 until 1907, when he took a position with Tree of Life Congregation in Oil City, Pa., to the north. Beth Jacob employed at least four other rabbis over the next 30 years before hiring Rev. Morris Moskowitz in 1935. Rabbi Moskowitz was born and ordained in Hungary, and immigrated to Pennsylvania with his wife Lena Martin Moskowitz in 1921. He worked for several congregations throughout western Pennsylvania as either a teacher or rabbi before coming to Duquesne. He stayed with Beth Jacob for more than 30 years, until his retirement in the 1960s. Early in Rabbi Moskowitz’s tenure, the congregation established a Young Men’s Club and a Junior Sisterhood, which suggests a sizable youth population.
The population of Duquesne has been sharply declining since reaching a peak of more than 21,000 people in 1930. The Jewish population also fell, from 750 in the 1940-1491 edition of the American Jewish Yearbook to 230 by the 1951 edition. Congregation Beth Jacob closed in 1977. The synagogue was demolished in 2016.