Synagogue ‘runs out of people,’ buries its past


NEW CASTLE, Pa. — It was a frigid 10 degrees on Sunday, the last day of 2017, but 20 people gathered at Congregation Tifereth Israel’s cemetery in this city of 22,000 on the Ohio border. A few days before, cemetery caretakers had carefully lowered into a grave cardboard boxes containing yahrtzeit plaques, tallit and other ritual items.

The mourners had come to bury, in a sense, their synagogue.

Congregation Tifereth Israel was founded nearly 125 years ago. Linked first to the canal system and later to the railroad, the town’s population swelled at the turn of the 20th century as its manufacturing base grew. Tin plate and paper mills and steel and ceramic factories brought great prosperity to the region. Ancillary businesses cropped up to support the growing population. Many of these — drug stores, department stores, furniture stores, groceries — were owned by New Castle’s Jewish residents.

Bruce Waldman told me that he was born in New Castle in 1942, and that one day he will be buried here. His plot in the Tifereth Israel cemetery is already designated. Waldman’s father also was a New Castle native and is buried here. His grandfather, who was among the New Castle Jewish community founders, had emigrated from Eastern Europe via Pittsburgh, 50 miles south.

When Waldman was a boy in the 1950s, the town’s population reached its peak of 48,834, and its two synagogues — the Reform Temple Israel and Tifereth Israel, originally Orthodox but joining the Conservative movement mid-century — together served 300 to 400 active families.

As the economy changed in the 1960s, New Castle’s population dwindled, along with many other Rust Belt cities; today the number stands at about 23,000. Those looking for a more robust Jewish community for their children went elsewhere; others simply moved away for better economic opportunities. Waldman’s two sons left for college and never returned. One now lives in Sydney, Australia, and the other in New York.

Faced with shrinking numbers, the town’s two Jewish congregations merged in 1997. The newly named Temple Hadar Israel operated out of the Tifereth Israel building and remained affiliated with the Conservative movement. The consolidation helped retain some vibrancy. Still, as the population continued to age and young people became scarce, it became difficult to gather a minyan for Shabbat services.

“We never ran out of money,” Sam Bernstine, the congregation’s president said, “but we ran out of people.”

About five years ago, Temple Hadar Israel members reached out to the Jewish Community Legacy Project, an organization that works with small, dwindling congregations to help insure their legacies by preserving historic documents, cataloging and disposing of ritual objects, creating oral histories and divvying up assets. It has worked with 50 such communities and identified 100 more that meet its criteria for assistance.

“Do you want a dignified end?” Bernstine asked his fellow congregants. “Or do you want the last person left to have to shut off the lights?”

Step by step the synagogue divested of its material assets. They donated their synagogue records, photographs and a few ritual items to the Rauh Jewish History Archives at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, the Klau Library of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the Lawrence County Historical Society.

Yahrtzeit plaques posed a delicate problem because each has a connection to a particular person. Members who still live in New Castle claimed their family members’, and efforts were made to locate relatives of those who grew up in New Castle but were now scattered across the country.

Temple Hadar’s nine Torah scrolls went to congregations across the world to help those struggling to get by and reinvigorate others.

Even with the great care to find a home for each ritual object, some remained orphaned. Among them were prayer books, prayer shawls, curtains for the Torah ark and many unclaimed yahrtzeit plaques. Rather than dispose of them, a burial was planned.

On Dec. 30, members of Temple Hadar Israel held prayer services in their sanctuary for the last time. Every person was called for an aliyah as the Torah was read, and people offered reflections at the final kiddush lunch. The following day, congregants drove through the snowy cemetery grounds to the pit that held the last of their items. Their part-time rabbi, Howard Stein of Pittsburgh, was not in attendance, as his own father had passed away the day before.

A few weeks prior, Stein told me that his plan was to conduct the ceremony like a funeral. In his absence, the event was brief, ad hoc and raw. One man read a passage about the Cairo geniza, a famed storehouse of centuries of damaged Jewish texts and ritual objects. Another man spoke about honoring the word of G-d in the same way that we honor a deceased person.

The ground was too cold to shovel dirt. Instead, congregants took hold of a few final items — including the prayer books that had been used for Shabbat services the day before — and together placed them into the hole.

To close the ceremony, Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives, offered a few words of reflection on the verse from Ecclesiastes: “There is a time for scattering stones and a time for gathering stones.” Although Temple Hadar Israel has disbanded, Lidji explained, its stones have been gathered in the archives and here, too, in the cemetery.

As Lidji concluded, someone in the huddled group spoke up.

“Shall we say Kaddish?” this person asked.

They recited the prayer together, memorializing their shared past, their last act as a congregation.

Alanna E. Cooper is director of Jewish Lifelong Learning at Case Western Reserve University and an adjunct assistant professor in its Department of Anthropology.