Synagogue holds last service, but legacy endures

Exchange-Synagogue’s Final Service

This photo taken Dec. 30, 2017, shows Sybil Epstein, right, reaching out to touch the Torah as Sam Bernstein pushes Larry Buntman, carrying the Torah, around the congregation during the final Shabbat service at Temple Hadar Israel in New Castle, Pa. (Pam Panchak/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)


Associated Press

Friday, January 12, 2018

NEW CASTLE, Pa. — They gathered for one last Shabbat service, one last reading from the Torah, one last sermon and one last luncheon preceded by a kiddush or prayer over bread and wine.

With that, Temple Hadar Israel in this Lawrence County city held its last weekly service, bringing an end to nearly a century and a quarter of synagogue Judaism in this post-industrial county seat.

Among the many who gave final words during the luncheon was Beverly Greenberg, who spoke from experience. Years earlier, she went through the closure of her longtime synagogue in Ellwood City, and then moved on to one in Beaver Falls, which met the same fate.

It’s a story being written up and down the river valleys and smaller county seats throughout the Tri-State area. Synagogues that were built on the merchant families who thrived along with once-booming industrial towns have been losing younger members to bigger cities in Pennsylvania and beyond, leaving behind dwindling and graying congregations.

“I know you feel badly, because I felt badly when we closed Ellwood City and when we closed Beaver Falls,” Ms. Greenberg said. But each time that happened, she joined a new congregation and volunteered for boards and other work.

“You have to be able to say, ‘I can move on to the next place and I can be active and make myself comfortable,’” she said.

About three-dozen people attended on Saturday, a mix of members and other supporters. At times, people choked up as they spoke of their memories. But as with the funeral of a loved one who has been in extended hospice care, the grief was muted because they had long known this day was coming.

In fact, the service was followed by a literal burial.

Members will gather at Tifereth Israel Cemetery for a burial of the old prayer books, Torah-ark curtain and other items for which members were unable to find a new home.

The most emotional points of Saturday morning’s worship service came when members brought out the Torah scrolls, bearing the biblical books of Moses.

As part of the traditional displaying of the Torah, synagogue vice president Larry Buntman, who is unable to walk while battling a bone infection in his foot, held the scroll while president Sam Bernstine slowly pushed his wheelchair through the congregation. Worshipers reached out to touch the embroidered blue covering of the scroll as they passed.

“I felt proud that I could do something,” said Mr. Buntman. His grandfather served as part of the temple’s founding generation. His daughter had her bat mitzvah in recent years, the last young person to go through such a rite of passage at Hadar Israel.

It’s traditional on Shabbat for seven members to receive aliyah, or be invited to come up to read portions of the assigned Torah reading for the day.

But at this final service, worship assistant Art Epstein said: “Everybody’s going to get an aliyah this morning who wants to. ... Come on up.”

Some read the Hebrew loudly and fluently, others more softly, some emotionally, followed by hugs and handshakes.

Rabbi Howie Stein said in his sermon that the final Torah reading was fitting. In a passage from near the end of the book of Genesis, the patriarch Jacob conferred blessings on his many sons.

“We close the book of Genesis, but we know that’s not the end of the story,” he said. Many chapters of Judaism were yet to be written and still are being written, he said.

“While this weekend marks the closing of this congregation, our legacy has a much larger reach.”

Hadar Israel members have spent the past few years working to leave a solid legacy. They donated valuable Torah scrolls to synagogues as far away as Poland and Indonesia, and they plan to donate the remaining one to Hillel, the Jewish student group at the University of Pittsburgh.

A large plaque depicting lions surrounding the Ten Commandments will be finding a home at Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler.

Temple Hadar Israel took its current form in the late 20th century through the merger of two previous synagogues, Temple Israel and Tifereth Israel, which dated to 1894.

Now, members will be choosing from synagogue options further afield, including Butler, Pittsburgh and Youngstown, Ohio.

“It’s a loss. It’s sad,” Mr. Epstein said. “But we’ll find some place.”