The boroughs and townships along Route 51 south of Pittsburgh attracted a sizable Jewish population in the mid-1950s, as Jewish engineers and scientists relocated to the area from other parts of the country to work for the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin, Pa. and later for the Westinghouse Astronuclear Laboratory in Large, Pa.
According to Beth Israel Center Past-President Ed Hillner, a group of Jewish employees at Bettis began holding prayer services around 1957 to accommodate a colleague who needed to say the mourner’s kaddish for a recently deceased parent. The success of the service prompted the group to consider forming a congregation to serve Jewish families living in the area. According to Past-President Estelle Weissburg, the congregation emerged from a local Hadassah chapter, which was already active in the South Hills.
An initial meeting was held in the Pleasant Hills Borough Building—specifically the Pleasant Hills Library above the local fire hall—on July 23, 1958. Dr. Jacques Weiss led a discussion about “ways and means for establishing religious facilities and learning for Jewish families in the vicinity of Pleasant Hills, Baldwin, Bethel (Park), Whitehall, Brentwood and nearby communities.” Of immediate interest to those in attendance was initiating religious education for Jewish children and arranging High Holiday services for the fall.
Using the name South Hills Jewish Community Center, representatives canvassed the area for prospective members. Preparing for the services provided an opportunity for the group to consider its denominational interests. A vote of early supporters overwhelmingly adopted the liturgy of the Conservative movement over that of the Orthodox or Reform movements. The first Rosh Hashanah services were held in September 1958 at the Pleasant Hills Community Presbyterian Church with as many as 120 people attending.
The success of those services encouraged the South Hills Jewish Community Center to proceed toward incorporation. Deliberations at the time concerned the ideal balance between the spiritual and the social aspects of the initiative, with some leaning toward a synagogue and others envisioning a community center. The group ultimately decided to create both a synagogue and a community center. The name Beth Israel Center was chosen on October 28, 1958. The congregation applied for its charter in February 1959.
Beth Israel Center received two merger offers during its first year. In October 1958, Homestead Hebrew Congregation offered use of its existing synagogue in Homestead, Pa. and proposed construction of a new synagogue in Homestead Park, Pa. In February 1959, Beth El Congregation of the Beechview neighborhood of Pittsburgh proposed a merger as part of its emerging plans to relocate to the South Hills. Beth Israel Center rejected both offers, deciding inside to launch a building fund campaign for a synagogue.
After evaluating locations throughout the area, Beth Israel Center purchased land on Gill Hill Road in Jefferson Hills, Pa. for $20,000 in November 1958. The congregation launched a $75,000 campaign for a synagogue. The congregation broke ground in June 1962 and dedicated the synagogue in October 1963, with the High Holidays. In the late-1960s, the congregation built a parsonage on the property, known as “The Manse.”
As the building fund was underway in the late 1950s, Beth Israel Center looked for its first rabbi. Keeping its search mostly to the region, the congregation ultimately chose Rabbi Robert Kaufman, who had grown up in Punxsutawney, Pa. and was working in Wheeling, W.V. He stayed with the congregation until 1966. Rabbi Moritzio “Meir” Leifer of Indiana, Pa. led the congregation from 1966 to 1972. Rabbi Abraham Garmaize led the congregation from 1972 to 1974. Rabbi Philip Sigal served as a part-time spiritual leader from 1977 to 1979. The congregation chose to become mostly lay-led starting in the late 1970s. For more than 10 years in the 2000s, Rabbi Amy Greenbaum served the congregation in a part-time role, leading services several times each month, officiating at life-cycle events, and attending major congregational and auxiliary social events.
Beth Israel Center created a Sisterhood in 1959. The new organization contributed to religious education and ran a gift shop, among many other responsibilities. The congregation also established a Men’s Club in the early 1960s to “provide for a fuller participation by the men of Beth Israel Center in efforts that will strengthen the Center and the Jewish community.” The Men’s Club helped with facilities maintenance, organizing religious services, and arranging social events, among other things.
Early in its existence, Beth Israel Center started a Sunday School for children of the congregation. The school was overseen at various points by Cantor Mordechai Haalman, his son Perry Haalman, Rabbi Stanley Savage, local Jewish educator Malke Frank, and preschool director Eileen Kaufman. Classes were also taught by volunteer teachers drawn from the membership of the congregation. In addition to its religious school, Beth Israel Center a non-sectarian community preschool in the early 1960s, to address a lack of early childhood education in the South Hills. The popular program attracted both Jewish and non-Jewish families and continued for many years.
Beth Israel Center also invested heavily in adult education, especially through its popular lecture series throughout the 2000s. The series included lectures by local rabbis, scholars, and journalists on Jewish and general subjects, as well as occasional performances.
Beth Israel Center acquired its first Torah scroll in 1962 from a Jewish congregation in Bellaire, Ohio, and acquired other used scrolls over the years. In 1970, through the initiative of Rabbi Leifer and during the presidency of Jon Duker, the congregation commissioned a Torah scroll and held impressive ceremonies to dedicate the scroll.
Under the leadership of congregation historian Carolee Burack, Beth Israel Center kept comprehensive records of its activities through minutes, newsletters and scrapbooks covering all aspects of its operations. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the congregation in 2009, Burack created tableaus showing the presidents of the congregation, its Sisterhood and its Men’s Club and also oversaw the publication of “The People of Beth Israel Center,” which collects memories of current and former members.
The membership of Beth Israel Center began to shrink in the 1990s and 2000s, as the Jewish population of the area declined. The congregation formally closed in 2017, selling its building and donating the proceedings to various charities throughout the region.
This exhibit was made possible through the generous support of Beth Israel Center.