For one evening in mid-April in New Castle, Pa., Temple Hadar Israel bustled with the sounds of prayers, the tinkling of glasses and dishes and even the joyful outbursts of a visiting toddler.
About three dozen members and visitors had gathered on the first night of Passover over matzo ball soup and other traditional fare for a communal celebration of the ancient Jewish ritual meal.
The chatter and laughter among the mostly older, formally dressed group provided a respite from the reality that the days of the historic synagogue in the Lawrence County city are likely numbered.
Once with about 300 to 400 families in the two synagogues that have long since merged, Hadar Israel is now down to about 70 individual members.
“Way back when, they used to have a service every day,” said Arthur Epstein, 81, who has been a member for about 50 years. “That’s when they were a booming congregation.”
On Judaism’s holiest days, the worshipers once overflowed from the main sanctuary into a fellowship hall filled with folding chairs. Today, there are plenty of empty seats at regular prayers, and classrooms once serving 100 young students now sit idle.
“We’re trying our best to keep it alive,” said Epstein. But “you have to have people.”
The story is being repeated throughout small-town America – but nowhere more so than in the constellation of small mill cities in the Tri-State area of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia that have long since passed their peak industrial years.
Along the Ohio and Monongahela River valleys, in the Laurel Highlands and in county seats through the region, synagogues with rich legacies have been entering what some describe as hospice care.
Many are already the last synagogues in town – mergers of Reform, Conservative or Orthodox congregations that once flourished separately, now using a blend of denominational liturgies. It’s often a matter of when, not if, they will close.
Many are preparing for the care of their cemeteries, endowments and Torah scrolls after they close.
Chalk it up to mills, malls, marriage and mobility.
As the traditional steel and other industrial employers closed or downsized, fewer customers frequented the downtown shops run by Jewish merchants – who also faced competition from new, larger store chains.
And like Jews elsewhere, younger generations are more likely to pursue professions in Pittsburgh or other larger cities.
“In smaller towns, kids go off to college and don’t come back. That tends to age a lot of these small congregations,” said Rabbi Howard Stein, who commutes from Pittsburgh’s South Hills twice a month to lead services at Hadar Israel, which went from full- to part-time rabbinical services to stretch its budget.
And small-town synagogues are buffeted by trends sweeping American Judaism overall.
A growing minority of Jews – including nearly one-third of younger adults – say they’re not religious, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center. More than half of Jews who married since 2000 did so to non-Jews.
When asked what makes one Jewish, significantly fewer listed Jewish community involvement or observance of religious law than pursuing more general values of morality, ethics and justice.
While small-town congregations face challenges, they’re not unique to synagogues.
Traditional ethnic churches of all stripes of Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism have been shrinking or closing across the Tri-State region and many Northern and Midwestern states.
But the loss of a city’s historic synagogue has unique poignancy for Jews.
Communal worship is central to Judaism, and synagogues often provided both a social outlet and a haven in times overt discrimination.
“It’s really an emotional thing” for people to close a synagogue where they had marked the years by bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and funerals, said Sharon Perelman, associate director of the Jewish Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, which is helping several area synagogues plan their legacies.
“The synagogue was the bedrock for the Jewish community. It wasn’t just a place where you had worship,” she said.
“When a synagogue or temple closes in a community, that’s it,” added David Sarnat, president of the Atlanta-based Jewish Community Legacy Project, which has consulted with declining synagogues in the Pittsburgh region and in the South and Midwest. “In almost every community we deal with, they’re down to their last congregation.
“It’s not like we’re able to say to them, ‘Go down the street to Congregation XYZ.’”
Instead, those Jews are faced with longer commutes to worship in Pittsburgh or another city.
Many area synagogues trace their roots back a century, when growing industrial cities attracted Yiddish- and German-speaking Jewish immigrants.
Jonathan Solomon, 67, of Temple Hadar Israel said his grandparents came to New Castle from Eastern Europe during an era of pogroms. By the time Solomon was having his bar mitzvah around age 13, he had about two dozen Jewish schoolmates just in his junior high school, and he and his friends could spend all day in the bustling downtown.
“It went downhill very, very, very fast in the ’70s,” he said. “Obviously it’s not unique to us as a religion. It’s happening to the city as a whole with the industry dying and young people moving away and not coming back and the older people retiring to Arizona or Florida, or dying.”
Gwendolyn Buntman, 13 – whose great-grandfather opened a shoe-repair business in New Castle a century ago – had her bat mitzvah at Hadar Israel last year and may well be the last to have that rite of passage there. She appreciated the one-on-one Hebrew tutoring she received but laments the lack of peers.
“Everybody here is older than me,” she said. “There are just not a lot of kids here.”
She expects to move out of town when she grows up.
Other cities are seeing the same out-migration of youth.
“It breaks my heart,” said Phyllis Ackerman, a lifelong member of Temple Beth Am in Monessen. “We all work very hard to keep it going, but the writing is on the wall.”
In Johnstown, the three synagogues have been reduced to one, Beth Sholom Congregation, following the declining fortunes of the steel industry.
“Other than the jobs, there’s good living here,” said Bob Horowitz, whose grandfather came to the Cambria County city from Czechoslovakia to serve as a synagogue cantor in the 1920s. “There’s friendship, community, safety. I would imagine if there were jobs in Johnstown, we would have a much larger population here” of both Christians and Jews.
Myron Chijner, past president of Temple Beth Israel in Steubenville, Ohio, which closed in 2013, said the city likely had more Jews in the early 20th century than it does today.
“We really didn’t run out of money,” he said of the temple. “We basically ran out of people.”
Working with the Jewish Community Legacy Project and the Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the synagogue planned for an orderly closing of Beth Israel, the sale of its building and the perpetual care of its cemetery.
Various congregations accepted its artifacts, including Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh, which received the sculptural work “Procession,” depicting a line of Jews bearing a menorah, prayer book and other ritual items and which had long stood outside the Steubenville synagogue.
Beth Israel also put assets into funds for Jewish education, youth camps and other future-oriented programs.
When members can plan their legacy, “this is making them feel good about it,” Perelman said.
Sarnat said synagogues need to ask themselves, “How do you want to be remembered? What things were important to you?”
He added: “It’s like a will. You don’t necessarily write your will when you’re dying. As a matter of fact, it’s preferable that you don’t do that.”
Sam Bernstine, president of Hadar Israel in New Castle, said the synagogue hopes to maintain religious services, classes and other activities as long as it can.
“Our goal is to keep this open so these wonderful senior citizens can finish their lives with the temple they began their lives with,” said Mr. Bernstein, who turns 58 this month and is often the youngest one at services. In part, he wants to repay his debt of gratitude to synagogue elders who mentored him after the death of his mother when he was 10.
When the congregation does close, the plan is to leave “a footprint of positive historic Judaism in Lawrence County,” Bernstine said.
But there’s still hope for revival in some small-town congregations.
In Washington, Pa., the Beth Israel Synagogue’s membership has decreased to about 40, but the congregation has attracted new members recently and maintained a religious school and full-time rabbi. It has rented space to a church, an arrangement that has “worked out nicely,” said Marilyn Posner, president of the congregation.
“We’re still here,” Posner said. “We don’t know how long this will be, but we are active, we are holding services every week, we have a balanced budget, we’re fixing things that break.
“We are not actively working toward an end at the moment, because we don’t think we need to.”