The first Jewish residents in Latrobe and neighboring Unity Township were peddlers and merchants who left before establishing communal institutions. The 1850 census includes Fanny Grabenheim, who immigrated originally to Youngstown, Pa., from Aldingen, Germany, in 1840 with her children, three brothers and brother-in-law, according to research by Dr. Stefan Rohrbacher. The family soon moved to Newark, New Jersey.
The brothers Henry and Marx Fellheimer immigrated to Latrobe from Ichenhausen, Bavaria, Germany, in 1864. Henry started a clothing store at the corner of Depot and Ligonier Streets and employed his young brother. His wife Henrietta Geisenberg Fellheimer was a milliner. The Democratic Party elected Henry as an assistant burgess.
Although other Jewish immigrants joined the Fellheimer family, the Jewish community in Latrobe was too small to coalesce until the 1890s, when immigrants from Eastern Europe settled in the area. A small group gathered informally as early as 1898, according to a 1919 history of the community in the Jewish Criterion. They formally chartered Beth Israel Congregation in 1906, according to community memory.
In 1906 or 1907, the congregation built a synagogue on a small plot of land on Miller Street donated by scrap dealer Harry Tapolsky and his wife Lena. It was a square frame building, painted gray, with at least one stained glass window. All 21 charter members lived within a few streets of one another in the First Ward of the city, which was colloquially known as “Jew Town.” There were also a few Jewish families who lived “uptown,” in the Third Ward of the city, including the Lowenstein family, who owned a department store.
Even though the Jewish community in Latrobe never exceeded 43 families, its members formed organizations based out of the synagogue. In 1914, a group of Jewish high school students and recent graduates created the co-educational Young Hebrew Association, which was devoted primarily to discussing Jewish literature. Within a few years, it had evolved into a more traditional Young Men’s Hebrew Association, which soon disbanded. In 1919, Miriam K. Arnold helped organize the Latrobe section of the National Council of Jewish Women with Fannie Lowenstein as the first president. The following year, the Council invited Miriam Schoenfield of the Pittsburgh section of the National Council of Jewish Women to form a religious school. The school became associated with the Southwestern District of Pennsylvania Jewish Religious Schools when the institution was officially established in 1923. Over the years, the religious school included students from the surrounding towns of Blairsville, Derry and Ligonier.
Without a full-time rabbi, Beth Israel Congregation relied on rabbinic leadership from Greenberg and Jeanette — and sometimes even as far away as Johnstown and Charleroi — for weddings, funerals and confirmations. Many of the early congregants were buried at the cemetery of Shaare Torah Congregation of Pittsburgh while others were buried in a section of the B’nai Israel of Greensburg cemetery dedicated for Latrobe residents.
The early records of the congregation were destroyed in a fire in 1932, according to the WPA Church Archives. “At the present time there is no congregation,” WPA surveyor reported in 1939, citing Harry Tapolsky. “Church is only used on Holidays. The congregation has dwindled down to nothing.”
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By the early 1950s, the members of Beth Israel Congregation wanted “a new, larger and more modern plant suitable for catering to both our religious and social needs,” as congregant Louis Goldman described it a history of the community compiled in 1957.
On the second weekend in November 1954, the congregation dedicated a new synagogue on Weldon Street. The one-story building included a social hall and kitchen with service for at least 100 people and a sanctuary with seating for 85 people. The dedication weekend began with Rabbi Morris Herzlich of Charleroi giving the sermon during Friday evening services. Rabbi Nathan Kollin of Johnstown led the dedication service on Sunday. Rabbi Joseph Levine of Greenburg gave the keynote address at the banquet on Monday evening.
Beth Israel Congregation was entirely lay-led when members decided to build a synagogue, and remained so for its entire existence. However, the new building included an office that could be used as a study, should the congregation ever be in the position to hire a rabbi. The congregation generally held Sabbath services every other week during the year and as needed to accommodate members reciting the kaddish prayer, which is said on a yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death of a loved ones. For the High Holidays, the congregation hired student or travelling rabbis. Among these was Rabbi Jack Maza, who led High Holidays services in Latrobe in 1955 and 1956 before changing his name to Jackie Mason and becoming a popular stand-up comedian. In 1958, the study was partially converted into a lending library, endowed by the Berkosky family.
With the decision to build a synagogue, Beth Israel Congregation also shifted its denominational status and officially joined the Conservative movement. The congregation also began holding confirmations services in Latrobe for the first time.
Beth Israel Congregation maintained a Sisterhood and a Men’s Club within its walls. For participation in other communal organizations, the Jewish residents of Latrobe often joined with larger Jewish communities in nearby towns, particularly those in the county seat of Greensburg to the west, including the B’nai B’rith Warren Roy Laufe Lodge #903 and the Westmoreland Jewish Community Council. In the late 1960s, congregations in Greensburg, Mt. Pleasant and Latrobe formed the Joint Conservative Sunday School.
The Jewish population of Latrobe increased over the first half of the 20th century, from approximately 87 people in 1919 to approximately 140 people in 1957. In the year after the construction of the new synagogue, membership declined. The congregation counted 37 member families in 1960. By 1965, membership had declined to 31 families, two of whom lived out of town. The decline was partly attributed to children who left Latrobe after graduating from high school and didn’t return. Even with the declining membership, Beth Israel Congregation persisted for decades, completing a major renovation in time for a 40th anniversary of the synagogue in 1994. The congregation officially closed in 2015.
This exhibit was made possible through the generous support of the B’nai B’rith Warren Roy Laufe Lodge #903.