A HISTORY OF BETH EL CONGREGATION OF THE SOUTH HILLS
Written by Richard H. Daffner, M.D.,F.A.C.R.
ORIGINS (1917 – 1925)
Pittsburgh, in 1905, was rapidly becoming the leading steel producing city in the United States. The city was well on its way to being known not only by the name “The Steel City” but also by it’s less complimentary sobriquet, “The Smoky City”. It was in this environment that residents began to migrate across the Monongahela to the newly built communities in the South Hills. This migration, naturally, included many Jewish families from Squirrel Hill to Beechview, a relatively new suburb. This new location combined easy access to the city of Pittsburgh (a short trolley ride) with the lure of country living and new business opportunities. However, by 1917, it became apparent to the Jewish residents of Beechview that something vital was lacking. The close proximity of synagogues and religious schools in the Squirrel Hill community did not exist in the South Hills. This situation was soon to change.
Historically, whenever Jews settled in a new area, the first task was to establish a Hebrew School. Synagogues followed quickly on the heels of the schools. And thus, Beth El Congregation of the South Hills began with the vision of an extraordinary woman nearly 100 years ago. Rebecca Ruderman, a true Woman of Valor, was one of the newer inhabitants of Beechview along with her husband, eight children, her mother, and mother-in-law. She realized the need for a local religious school for the Jewish children, since a commute to Squirrel Hill for their Hebrew education was not only long, but also extremely inconvenient. Rebecca rightly deserves to be called the founder of Beth El Congregation because of her conviction and dedication to finding a solution to the problem. Mrs. Ruderman braved the hilly, unpaved streets and sidewalks of Beechview, literally knocking on doors in search of Jewish families. She successfully convinced the Jewish mothers to join her quest to create a local religious school for their children. The women formed The Jewish Mothers’ Club of Beechview, which had as its primary purpose the organization of a formal Hebrew curriculum, in addition to satisfying social needs. Rebecca succeeded in enlisting twenty families who were committed to this goal.
Identifying the future students was the first part of the task. Finding professional direction would be somewhat harder. The Jewish Mothers’ Club contacted the South Western Religious School Committee of Rodef Shalom Congregation who suggested Miss Miriam Schoenfeld for the position of the school’s first supervisor. Finding a permanent location for the school proved to be a more daunting problem. Initially, classes moved from one vacant store to another. Eventually, the Main Hall in the Boylan Building was rented. However, this location was still not ideal for a permanent solution. Throughout these early years, the Jewish Mothers’ Club undertook the sole funding for the school. They initiated a Sinking Fund with the intention of purchasing a house to convert into a Jewish Community Center.
The men of the Jewish community were not idle during this time, however. They began to gather for prayer and High Holiday services were conducted in the same rooms used for the schooling. These men also realized (perhaps listening to their wives) that there was an urgent need for a safe and permanent Hebrew school and decided to officially organize. They met at the home of Abraham Zober to discuss their plans to form an Orthodox congregation. Among the attendees, Benjamin (Ben) Cohen, a clothier used his carpentry skills and built a wooden ark to hold the first Sefer Torah. On April 29, 1919 the Jewish men of Beechview met at the home of Ben Cohen at 1505 Rockland Avenue for the purpose of organizing their Congregation, which was duly chartered as Beechview Hebrew Congregation Beth El, with Jacob Rosenson as Chairman.
Under this proud name, the children continued to receive their religious training and the men assembled to pray. However, the need for a more suitable location continued to be pressing. Sensing the urgency of the situation, the Jewish Mothers’ Club abandoned its plan for a community center and instead, elected to contribute their entire Sinking Fund, in the amount of $2,500, to the congregation for the construction of a permanent house of worship and school.
On May 4, 1919 the men met and elected the first officers: President, Jacob Rosenson; Vice President, Harry Ruderman; Secretary, Isidore Marmorstein; Treasurer, Abraham Zober. Under the watchful eye of the Mother’s Club, a building committee was formed and the dream of a synagogue began to materialize. Individual members donated one dollar, five dollars, and in rare cases, one hundred dollars to assist the process. In addition, Beth El’s men sold bricks at two dollars apiece to every possible neighbor and business contact to assure adequate funding. On march 28, 1920 Beechview Hebrew Congregation purchased a lot at 1910 Broadway. The adjoining lot was purchased on April 11, 1920.
The organizational and spiritual goals of the congregation flourished simultaneously as the building plans progressed. A Constitution and By-Laws were unanimously approved on June 1, 1920. Two years later (June 3, 1922) the Jewish Mothers’ Club contributed $500 toward the final payment for the lots. In addition, the Mothers’ Club presented the first Sefer Torah to the congregation on September 10, 1922. This industrious, productive, and generous group of women held regular meetings on the first and third Tuesday evenings of each month.
On the congregational level, early presidents following Jacob Rosenson included Isidore Marmorstein (1919), Abe Zober 1920), Jacob Siegel (1921, 1922), S. C. Greenberg (1923, 1924), and Mr. Marmorstein, again in 1925.
BUILDERS (1926 – 1943)
In 1926, meaningful ceremonies marked the groundbreaking and placement of the cornerstone for the Beechview Hebrew Congregation Beth El; Synagogue. Jacob Siegel received the honor of turning the first spadeful of dirt onthis historic occasion. Finally, in 1927, the completed building at 1910 Broadway Avenue was dedicated as the original synagogue of Pittsburgh’s South Hills, and the dream that began with Rebecca Ruderman was finally realized. At the dedication service, Rev. Julius Bloom sand “Open the Gates of the Temple. Senator James J. Davis purchased the key to the building and opened the door. This emotionally and historically charged day endured in the memories of charter members and community residents alike.
The Mothers’ Club remained prominent in synagogue activities and hosted its first Birthday Ball on January 19, 1928. The attendance was excellent, despite inclement weather. True to the spirit of the Mothers’ Club, the gala’s focus surpassed mere social entertainment. The candlelighting ceremony provided the highlight of the evening. Each woman became a valued donor as she lit a candle in honor or memory of relatives or friends. The highest bidder was given the honor of lighting the first candle. The honorial and memorial information was recorded in the Beth El Anniversary Book. For decades to come, the proceeds from the annual Birthday Ball were used directly to support the religious school.
The women continued beyond their sole support of the educational system and they raised and presented $1,500 to the congregation in 1938. In a dramatic and gratifying act, President Lou Hoffman burned the mortgage as onlookers applauded.
Beth El’s noble list of spiritual leaders began with Rabbi Joshua Weiss. After he moved to a congregation in East Pittsburgh, Beth El welcomed Rabbi Nathan Hurvitz. Unfortunately, the depression years proved formidable for the small South Hills community and Rabbi Hurvitz accepted a pulpit in New Kensington. Isadore Rubenstein, a teacher, provided Bar Mitzvah training, supervised the Sunday School, and served as surrogate rabbi until the early 1940’s.
The 1930’s also proved an emotional time for the congregation. In December 1934, the congregation adopted a resolution permitting men and women to sit together, a decision which proved difficult for the Orthodox founders of Beth El to accept. This foreshadowed the eventual move to join the Conservative movement in 1950.
MIDDLE YEARS (1944 – 1951)
Rabbi Morris Haft, of Middle Village, New York,a graduate of Mesifta Tifereth Jerusalem of New York, was installed as Beth El’s third spiritual leader on October 29, 1944, along with President Abe Sniderman and other congregational officers. The Master of Ceremonies at the dinner was attorney I.J. Simon, Depury Registrar of Wills, whose talk was entitled, “Who Will Speak for Us at the Peace Table”. The November/December, 1944 issue of the Beth El Guide, the congregation’s newsletter contained in its Armed Services News column stories about the atrocities being committed against the Jews of Europe by the Germans. In addition, Walter Hirschmann was commended for his thirteenth trip to the Red Cross blood bank. Other members were challenged to compete with his precedent.
Rabbi Haft was succeeded by Rabbi Pincus Miller, who would remain with the congregation until the late 1950’s. In the August 28, 1950 High Holiday Bulletin, Rabbi Miller announced his sermon topic to be “Spiritual Rearmament”. Once again, the smll Jewish community reflected the larger world issues as Rabbi Miller addressed a generation that witnessed two world wars and a “threatening third world conflagration”. On a communal level, Beth El faced an emotionally challenging decision when the congregation voted to join the Conservative movement.
The Beth El Men’s Club of the 1940’s described itself as primarily a social group promoting enjoyable fellowship among men and women. Their programs included such activities as picnics, card parties, and mushball.
The original Mothers’ Club presidents warrant mention, at this time, since their legacies survive in modern day Beth El. As previously mentioned, Rebecca Ruderman was not only the founder of Beth El Congregation, but was also the first Mothers’ Club president. The first library was begun by President Irene Madeabach, a religious school teacher. President Augusta Greenberg donated the stained glass Mogen David window in her husband’s memory.
This window, preserved from the original Beth El, currently adorns the dome of the Melman Community Room. President Eva Marmorstein, a convert to Judaism, symbolically adopted all new newcomers to Pittsburgh, who affectionately named her “Mrs. Marm.” Her brother carved the wooden lions that today adorn the ark in the Leizer Balk-Ahavas Zedek chapel in deference to her newly embraced faith. Two additional mothers, Mollie Hilsenrath and Dora Scheimer, did not serve as presidents, yet earned recognition for their loving and loyal support of Beth El in its early years.
EXPANSION (1952 – 1960)
There was a period of expansion during the 1950’s. Basic membership dues increased to seventy five dollars (including Hebrew school) in September 1952. In December of the same year, the Beth El Gift Shop opened for business during the Hanukkah season and featured such items as holiday music boxes, Israeli dolls, and menorot in chrome and brass. Prior to that time, there was an informal, portable gift shop that appeared at each congregational event.
In March 1953, Sid Baker and Howard Lazear chaired a committee to organize a Junior Congregation to serve singles and married couples, ages twenty one through thirty six. The Mother’s Club was renamed Beth El Sisterhood and remained crucial in the existence of the religious school. This was documented in the November 1953 Beth El Guide: “With the not-too-gentle prodding by our Sisterhood, the wheels are now turning in the direction of a building…” Indeed, Sisterhood experienced success when December’s religious school enrollment rose to ninety-five students, an increase of thirty over the previous year!
Another bright spot occurred when Samuel Lazier joined Beth El as full-time Cantor. Cantor Lazier had been singing in synagogues since his boyhood. Prior to joining Beth El, he sang with the Beth Sholom choir for twenty two years, and served for five years as its director. The richness and nostalgic quality of Cantor Lazier’s voice touched all who were privileged to witness this gentle man’s chanting.
A volunteer choir, under the guidance of gifted directors, further enhanced the beauty of Beth El’s Friday evening and High Holiday services for many decades. Hy Kimel, Al Freed, Jeff Klotz, Shirly Tannenbaum, and Bill Lowenstein served as Beth El choir directors from the fifties through the eighties.
In 1957 Beth El experienced its first husband/wife presidential team when Sam Rudt served as congregation president and his wife, Mollie, was president of the Sisterhood. To date, they remain the only such alliance
By the late fifties, the ever expanding congregation crowded the Beechview building beyond its maximum potential. Furthermore, the members’ children received their religious instruction in a large basement, a potential fire tram. By this time, many second generation families had ventured further into the South Hills suburbs to reside in Scott Township, Greentree, and Mt. Lebanon. While consideration was given to an addition to the existing building, those in favor of construction on a new site prevailed as the molders of Beth El’s future. Not only would a new building site provide the room needed for a growing congregation, but it would also be able to alleviate the parking problem such expansion engendered.
The first meeting of the Beth El Building Committee, chaired by Seemen Rose first met on January 11, 1959. They continued to meet on alternate Sundays. Initially, the committee considered a plot of land at the intersection of Old Gilkeson and Washington Roads. However, they were unable to obtain the proper zoning permits from Mt. Lebanon municipality and subsequently had to change their plans. An article, authored by Alvin and Barbara Ring in the March 1961 issue of The Shofar revealed:
“At an open congregation meeting held Sunday, March fifth, the members of Beth El Congregation unanimously approved the purchase of a large tract of land in Scott Township for a new synagogue building. The new site comprises some sixteen acres in a highly scenic and secluded locale off Cochran Road… The congregation commended Sidney Hoffman and William Crosby of the land committee who wee instrumental in securing an option on the land.”
Beth El Congregation had found its second home!
NEW RESIDENCE (1961 – 1976)
On a sparkling autumn day in October 1961, the Beth El family celebrated by meeting on the new land. The guest of honor, who spoke on the occasion was Dr. Maz Artz, Vice-Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The program paid tribute to the original founders of Beth El in 1927, who remained equally invaluable to the construction to the new building. The following month a massive capitol campaign was launched with the promising slogan, “Beth El – New in ‘62″. A program of honorials and memorials for the new building requested contributions such as $250 for a kiddush cup, $2,500 for a classroom, and $5,000 for the main synagogue dome. Although interest rates were lower in the 1960’s, borrowing was a difficult task. Many members selflessly signed personal guarantees to acquire some of the initial funds
Groundbreaking ceremonies were held June 24, 1962 with Rabbi A. Irving Schnipper presiding. Milton Sussman was the guest speaker and as well as guest rabbi Kenneth Bromberg, who would soon become the spiritual leader in the new Beth El, serving from 1962 through 1970. The physical act of groundbreaking symbolized the continuity of three generations of Beth El, as Sam Minsky, an original founder, assisted by his small grandson, Jeffrey, performed the esteemed task.
Three months later congregants assembled in the first sanctuary of the new Beth El (now the Melman Social Hall) for High Holiday services. The event was slightly marred by the Pittsburgh weather that produced torrential downpours and turned rural Roessler Road into a sheet of mud. Jeeps transported many members from Cochran Road to the new building. Although many congregants were drenched by the rain, they initiated the many seasons of holy days to be observed in the new Beth El building with happy, triumphant hearts.
On November 12, 1962, the architect, Carl Pearlman displayed the ongoing plans during a “Tour of the New Beth El” at the Webster Hall Hotel. “Beth El – New in ‘62″ had attained reality. In that first year Beth El thrived as a congregation, with membership reaching 130 families. Newly formed adult education classes taught by Rabbi Kenneth and Johanna Bromberg wee available during daytime and evening hours. Financial matters remained in the forefront, as reported in the minutes of the November 4, 1962 Board meeting. A complex dialogue addressed the issue of determining a required building fund pledge. The Board agreed to sign a contract for $55,000 with Mellon Stuart for the construction of a school building. While the original structure faded into history, the plans and inspiration of Beth El’s founders endured permanently in its consciousness.
The congregation matured socially and educationally in 1963. A dinner dance under the chairmanship of Phyllis Stahl provided entertainment on February sixth. The evening featured an original musical review, cleverly composed by Lucille Rubinstein and Harvey Rose, entitled Beth El – Off Broadway. The show boasted such pieces as “They Have Finished Up the Shul on Time”, recounting the muddy travels to the first Rosh Hashanah services, “Ten to Minyan”, and “There’s No Business Like Shul Business”. On a more traditional note, March of 1963 saw the first classes held in the new school building. A phenomenal enrollment of 200 children personified the purpose of Beth El’s original founders. Furthermore, June 1963 marked the proposal of a nursery school under the auspices of Beth El.
February 24 – 26 was chosen for a memorable dedication weekend to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the new Beth El and the fiftieth year since its founding. Rabbi Kenneth Bromberg delivered the Friday evening sermon, “What the Sanctuary Is – And What It Is Not”. Shabbat morning services were led by the youth congregation. The weekend culminated with the dedication of the new sanctuary and the four stained glass windows adorning it. Nicholas Parrendo of Hunt Stained Glass Studios of Pittsburgh aesthetically designed the windows depicting mitzvot in Jewish life, a theme developed by Rabbi Bromberg. The first window portrays the Jewish life cycle, with the chair of Elijah, a Torah scroll, a chuppah, and a spade symbolizing birth, bar/bat mitzvah, marriage, and death respectively. The second window illustrates the annual cycle revolving around the observance of festivals. The shofar, sukkah, four cups of wine, masks, and two tablets of the Law pictorially represent the festivals. The third windo echoes Judaism’s daily cycle, utilizing the symbols of a crown, the washing of the hands, a tallit, and Shabbat lights to express berachot. Lastly, the fourth window conveys the mitzvot that transpire between peoples and their fellow human beings. Balanced scales, food, shelter, and wheat represent tzedakah. It is apparent from this sampling of visual symbols that each observer of these windows will uniquely experience their significance. (See color photos and a detailed description of each window below.) Recognizing Beth El’s remarkable growth as a full-service congregation, Johanna Bromberg designed a magnificent marriage chuppah which coordinated with the colors and themes on the new bima.
In September of 1969, Beth El Nursery School opened its doors to the preschoolers of the South Hills community. A dinner reception honored Cantor Samuel J Lazier on November eighth. Dr. Gilbert Lazier of Columbia University presented the speech, “I Talk to the Trees” and Rabbi Bromberg offered his observations “From the Other Side of the Bima”. Cantor Lazier’s tenure spanned twenty years of Beth El’s history. It would be with grea sadness that the Beth El family would note the passing of beloved Sam Lazier in November 1971.
Rabbi Bromberg, a successful instiller of scholarship, departed Beth El in 1970 to accept a new pulpit. Aaron Michaelson then served as rabbi for a brief time. In 1973, Alan Scheimer accepted the volunteer position of Ben Gurion United Synagogue Youth (BGUSY) advisor, a commitment that would continue for eight years. His continuous leadership helped to mold an inactive youth group into a strong, cohesive chapter, that continues as such to this day. In the early seventies, the eloquent orations of Rabbi Stephen Steindel and the resouding, impassioned singing of Cantor Herman Weisberg filled the vacancies on the bima. In May 1974, Rabbi Steindel organized a congregational tour to Israel. The journey to the Promised Land attracted both first time and veteran visitors.
THIRD GROUNDBREAKING (1977 – 1981)
By 1977, Beth El membership had soared to a total of 300 families, compared to 130 in 1962. The religious school educated 200 children, again reflecting more than double the enrollment over the past decade and a half. However, the facility that easily accommodated the Beth El family of 1962, now required enlargement. This was made all the more pressing since demographic studies by the United Jewish Federation predicted a continuing trend of increased population in the South Hills due to excellent schools, low crime, and the preexistence of Jewish institutions.
Expansion plans were begun and another groundbreaking ceremony was held on September 18, 1977. The catchy theme of the new capital campaign was “Beth El Builds Brick by Brick”, which described the synagogue’s future vision, while echoing the fundraising methods used for the original building. The congregation’s leadership at that time were Rabbi Stephen Steindel, Cantor Herman Weisberg. Education Director Moshe Betan, and President Casey Neuman. The congregation’s Building Development Committee selected Mr. Elkan Avner as architect. The sprawling addition provided a forty per cent increase in size over the existing facilities. The projected plans included a separate sanctuary with over 300 permanent seats, six new classrooms, an enlarged kitchen, a separate youth lounge, a self-enclosed gift shop, a separate library, a Sisterhood Room / bridal suite, and more spacious offices for the rabbi, school director, and executive staff. This ambitious plan required the congregation to secure $350,000 in building fund pledges, payable over a five year period. Inherent in this plan was the expectation to enroll twenty new families each year. The expansion project provided a fitting way to celebrate Beth El’s sixtieth year as a congregation.
The building program culminated with a “Weekend of Simcha” on September 8 through 10, just a short year after the goundbreaking. Marvin and Myra Lalli and Seril and Jackie Slavkin chaired the meaningful dedication ceremonies of the Sufrin Family Sanctuary. Beth El’s former rabbi, Kenneth Bromberg, visited from his own Beth El of Omaha, Nebraska to deliver the Friday evening sermon. A dinner dance celebrating the dedication of Beth El’s Tree of Life was held Saturday evening, following Havdalah services. The leaves of the tree, created by father and son members Harvey and Andrew Lantzman honored the Beth El builders. Congregation President Sam Balk received the honor of lighting the Ner Tamid. Rabbi Pincus Miller, who had served Beth El from 1945 through 1960, offered the benediction. Rabbi Stanley Schachter, Vice Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), spoke at the formal dedication ceremonies on Sunday morning. The Hoffman, Minsky, Scheimer/Baer, Speigel, Sufrin/Melman, and Tabor families captured the essence of Beth El, as they participated in a three generation Torah procession. These honored members, accompanied by children from the religious school, represented Beth El’s highest purpose – the continuity of bequeathing the Torah from generation to generation – L’dor v’dor.
Simultaneously, Rabbi Steindel’s personal achievements paralleled the progress of Beth El’s physical premises. In October he received the 1978 Rabbinic Award in recognition of his outstanding service to the Jewish community. His credentials included the honor of being the first rabbi chosen as President of the South Hills Clergy Association, his teaching position at the School of Advanced Jewish Studies (SAJS), and serving as representative of the Rabbinical Assembly on the Board of Overseers of JTS. Rabbi Steindel was again honored on June 6, 1979 at Beth El’s annual Israel Bond reception. He received commendation for pioneering such programs as Early Sabbath Prayer (ESP), which continues to this date.
As a member of the South Hills Interfaith Ministries (SHIM), Beth El participates with other synagogues and churches in an annual Yom Hashoah Memorial Service. This remains an unique program, since few other cities join synagogues and churches together in remembering the Holocaust. Beth El also participates with SHIM in an annual Thanksgiving ecumenical service, as well as a regular contributor to the Community Food Pantry.
In addition to encouraging the participation of children at services, Beth El began to reassess the ritual participation of women. The Adult Education and Ritual committees announced a series of symposia to explore the inclusion of women in minyan. Subsequently, The Board of Trustees voted to acknowledge women as part of the minyan on December 27, 1979.
February 22,1980 marked the thirteenth anniversary of the dedication of the original sanctuary, and appropriately, a Bima Bat Mitzvah was held. The celebration commemorated the gifts donated thirteen years earlier and publicly displayed the names of 100 Beth El builders on the Tree of Life sculpture. Joseph and Judy Sufrin chaired the Bima Bat Mitzvah, with Sidney Hoffman commenting on Beth El’s past, Sam Balk on the present, and Alex Silverman, on its future.
1980 saw other noteworthy activities. The first Dream Auction, chaired by Bette Balk and Rhonda Averbach, was held on May 18 and would become a recurring event with members donating goods and services to be auctioned to help raise revenue for Beth El. Rabbi Steindel led his second congregational tour to Israel in June. Later in the Fall, he guided the Pittsburgh Jewish community in its first ever Rosh Hashanah service for singles. Rabbi Steindel also organized an Energy Awareness Shabbat, on October 10 and 11, 1980, through the Rabbinic Fellowship of Greater Pittsburgh. Finally, our history would be incomplete without mentioning the recognition of A. Maurice (Maury) Rosenberg , honoree of the congregation on behalf of the Jewish Theological Seminary on December 21, 1980. Maury had long served as the Chairman of Beth El’s Ritual Committee. Unfortunately, the congregation, to which he devoted so much of his life would mourn his loss in 1983.
Beth El first housed the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Pittsburgh in 1981. This particular school was formed under the auspices of the Western Pennsylvania Region of the United Synagogue of America and was one of only fifty Conservative Jewish day schools in the country.
In the mid ‘80’s the United Jewish Federation recognized the need for quality after school religious programs and began to support synagogues with the Federation Elementary Education Fund (TEEF). This program was designed to assist the synagogues tin providing quality creative programs, purchasing unbudgeted special supplies, and funding in-service education for faculty. The Spiegel Religious School of Beth El received funding for computers and software, a large screen television, and other supplies for education programming.
A DECADE OF CHANGE (1982 – 1991)
A historic construction project occurred in 1982 when Beth El’s history was recreated and lovingly restored by the refurbishing of the Ahavas Zedek Chapel in memory of Leizer Balk. A talented group of ten volunteers, headed by Ron and Brenda Orenstein remodeled the chapel using pieces from the original Beth El Building in Beechview that had been in storage. These valued objects included the ark with a pair of walnut lions that had been hand-carved by the brother of Mrs. Eva Marmorstein, The Ner Tamid, and four stained glass windows. In addition, bima chairs and reader’s tables from the former Ohave Israel Congregation of Brownsville, Pennsylvania are preserved in the chapel along with their memorial plaques. The chapel, intended to accommodate small weddings and daily minyan services, serves a broader function as a reminder of the weaving of the old into the context of the new.
A glance of the following decade shows a period of transition, progress, and acquisitions. In May of 1983, the Board received Rabbi Steindel’s resignation from the pulpit, as he, Lisa, and their family journeyed to Hillcrest Jewish Center of Queens, New York. Beth El’s youth began to benefit from the talents of Susan Simons, the congregation’s first professional Youth Director. Sue, who holds Bachelors and Masters Degrees in Developmental Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, previously served as Youth Group Coordinator for United Hebrew Temple in St. Louis, Missouri.
Further changes ensued the following year when the Board of Trustees selected Rabbi Michael Gold to be the congregation’s new spiritual leader. Rabbi Gold, a 1979 graduate of JTS, previously served as rabbi of Congregation Sons of Israel in Upper Nyack, New York. He received his Bachelors Degree from the University of California at San Diego and later became a doctoral student in Rabbinic Literature at JTS. August thrid and fourth brought the first Shabbat Rabbi Gold towered on the bima.
Also, in 1984, Reuven Robbins joined Beth El’s professional staff as Educational Director, replacing Moshe Betan, who left the previous year. Mr. Robbins was a doctoral candidate at Temple University and received his degree in 1988.
In addition to new spiritual and educational leadership, the Beth El office staff underwent changes in 1984. Bernice Silver, administrative secretary, resigned in October to return to her native Cleveland. Ann Haalman, the new administrator, came to Beth El, holding Masters Degrees in Social Work and Jewish Studies. She possessed experience directing numerous programs for the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Pittsburgh and Greater Baltimore.
1984 saw the Amud program initiated at Beth El. Each participant in this fundraising enterprise becomes a “pillar” of the synagogue by contributing $250 or more over and above dues to support Beth El’s financial demands.
Beth El hosted an official welcoming reception for Rabbi Michael and Evelyn Gold on February 3, 1985. The rabbi revealed his considerable talents when he wrote a cantata named Akiba, which was performed by members of Ben Gurion USY (BGUSY).
That spring the congregation honored Avis Kotovsky, Beth El’s Nursery School Director of nearly fifteen years with the attendance of many graduates at ESP (Early Sabbath Prayer) services on May third. Georgia Hernandez, who had been associated with the school for eleven years, assumed the directorship in 1985, a post she would hold until she retired in 2003.
The stability of leadership that began in 1986 offered the opportunity for Beth El to reflect on its past accomplishments. Appropriately, Barbara Ring presented This Is Your Life, Beth El at the Sisterhood meeting on November twelfth. This narrative warmly recounted Beth El’s history and featured members from the Beth El Off Broadway production, first performed in 1963.
1987 saw the recognition of the achievements of Beth El’s youth. Susan Simons and theyouth she directed attained lofty goals of which to be proud. Ben Gurion USY won the title of Best Chapter in the Central Region. Furthermore, judges ranked Ben Gurion as the second best USY group in the nation at the International Convention in San Jose. Furthermore, Beth El’s USY and Kadima chapters received the 1987 Solomon Schechter Award for Excellence in Programming. Also in 1987, Rabbi Gold was elected Second Vice President of SHIM.
Two new Beth El traditions also began in 1987. The first Annual Passover Congregational Seder was hosted on April fourteenth, chaired by Yetta Rosenberg. The second event was the initiation of the Beth El Lucky Calendar by Cheryl Snyder, a prosperous fundraiser for Sisterhood with proceeds also benefitting the congregation. The year drew to a close with the rededication of the David Stahl Memorial Library on December sixteenth, chaired by Dorothy Bernknopf, Carol Leaman, and Shiela Schmeltz.
Further changes and accomplishments occurred in 1988. Rabbi Gold published the well-received book, And Hannah Wept: Infertility, Adoption, and the Jewish Couple. On June twelfth, Judy Sufrin was installed as the first woman president in Beth El’s history. Cantor Herman Weisberg retired in 1988 and moved to California, and Reuven Robbins departed Beth El to assume a position in Wisconsin. Ann Haalman would temporarily serve as Acting School Adminstrator, in addition to her regular duties. Ben Gurion USY once again was named Chapter of the Year for 1987-88, and their Torah Corps won the Outstanding Programming Award. In the fall of 1988, the Solomon Schechter school relocated to the Community Day School in Squirrel Hill. On November 19,1988 Beth El formally welcomed David Presler, formerly of the Malverne Jewish Center in Long Island, as the new Cantor.
Numerous transformations also occurred in 1989. Casey Neuman was responsible for the leadership for the rededication of the refurbished Melman Social Hall in March, which also provided the context in which to honor Beth El members who originally belonged to the Beechview Hebrew Congregation. Also in March, Lucille Rubenstein retired as the secretary to the rabbi. She went beyond her expert secretarial skills since she demonstrated the rare ability to unite each member with Beth El in times of personal joy and sorrow. A special oneg on June sixteenth celebrated Lucille’s twenty five years of selfless dedication to Beth El. Also in 1989, Harriet Sufrin was commended for her leadership role in the weekly Bingo games. This mammoth fundraiser, originated by Martha Kuber and Alex Silverman netted between $20,000 and $25,000 annually toward budgetary needs and continues to the present.
Also that year, in August, Beth El welcomed Judy Choucroun, former Educational Director of the Community Religious School in her native Kansas City, as our new Educational Director.
In September Marc Shulman, a former music student at Duquesne University and a soloist in Cantor Taube’s choir was welcomed as the new cantor. Finally, 1989 marked the dedication of the Beth El Gardens in the separate Jewish section of Mt. Lebanon Cemetery, after the cemetery management agreed to observe all halachah ritual requirements for Jewish burial.
Bette Balk was installed as Beth El President on June 10, 1990. She and her Executive Board would guide the congregation in its seventy fifth anniversary season of celebrations. In July of 1990, Rabbi Gold left Beth El for Temple Beth Torah in Tamarac, Florida. The encouragement of traditional, yet participatory services, the welcoming of children in the sanctuary, and the formation of havurot were among a few of the successes accomplished during his tenure.
Beth El would not be without a rabbi for long. Kenneth Stern, formerly of the Park Synagogue in Cleveland, Ohio, was welcomed at Selichot services, on September 15,1990. Rabbi Stern graduated from JTS in 1981 and possessed various Bachelors and Masters degrees in Judaic and political studies from JTS and Columbia University. Rabbi Stern was quickly recognized for his superior scholarship and excellent rapport with children and teenagers.
In 1990 the hallways near the then entrance to the Sufrin Family Sanctuary and the Sisterhood Room were dedicated as the Hall of Memories. This area contained plaques from earlier giving campaigns, a portion of Harvey Lantzmen’s tree, and the sculpture from the original Ahavas Zedeck Chapel. In addition there was a collection of portraits of the Past Presidents and Rabbis of Beth El, which now hang outside the wall of the new sanctuary. This photography project was begun in 1980 by Leonard Schugar, a renowned professional photographer, who donated his time and talent to Beth El. After his untimely death, member Losi Sakolsky and her partner Joan Ramsey continued the tradition.
Beth El Sisterhood presented a collection of exceptional hand-stitched Torah mantles and binders to the congregation on Sisterhood Shabbat, January 18 and 19,1991. Joan Weinberger initiated this project during her Sisterhood presidency in 1987, by contacting local ecclesiastical designer Barbara Trellis. This creative artist utilized color, symbolism, and design to depict life cycle, annual cycle, fellowship, and Shabbat. It should be noted that the first four of these themes are identical to those of the four stained glass windows developed by Rabbi Bromberg. Rhondda Averbach chaired the creative handicrafts committee of ten needlepoint stitchers. Their labor of love bore fruit during the Sisterhood presidency of Lenore Adler. Sisterhood Shabbat, 1991, also marked the dedication of the newly renovated Aron Hakodesh, designed and constructed by member Ron Orenstein.
A singular and emotional event occurred on July 10,1991 when Beth El Members Sam and Hannah Balk arrived in Pittsburgh with a precious and sacred gift transported from England. Beth El acquired a Sefer Torah on permanent loan from the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust, with funds raised by the newly revitalized Men’s Club. During World War II, the Nazis confiscated this scroll and over 1,000 others belonging to the Prague Jewish community, with the ultimate intent of displaying them as remnants of a nonexistent culture. The scrolls eventually came under control of the Czech state authorities, until the Westminster Synagogue in London, England became their trustee, with the goal of placing them in Jewish institutions throughout the world. Beth El Congregation gratefully acknowledged this opportunity to immortalize the Jews of Vlasim, the town from which this particular Holocaust Torah Number 658 originated.
ANNIVERSARY AND GROWING PAINS (1992 – 2000)
Beth El celebrated its Diamond Anniversary on May 3,1992 with a gala dinner. For those first seventy five years Beth El remained true to its purpose as stated in its constitution:
“…to establish and maintain a synagogue and such educational, religious, social, and recreational activities as will further the cause and objectives of this congregation and of tradition Judaism…”
Beth El, at seventy five years featured a main sanctuary that could be expanded to seat 1000 people, a necessity for over 400 member families. In addition, there was handicap access, an amplification system for the hearing impaired, and large print siddurim.
However, as the congregation’s membership increased so did the demands on its physical plant. Beth El’s children prevail as central to the synagogue in the 1990’s as at it’s inception. Because of the lack of adequate classroom space, double shifts were instituted for Hebrew school education in the 1980’s. The influx of new members with young children of school age made the problem more acute. And so, at the request of President Carole Gerson Rubenstein and the Board, a Building Committee was formed in 1995 to draw up plans to expand the school building. During the course of their deliberations, the committee decided to build a new sanctuary as well. The committee knew that a new Capital Campaign would be needed to finance the new additions. With the generous donations of the members of Beth El’s family, sufficient funding was raised to allow construction to begin. In early 1996, ground was broken and within two years, the new facility was ready for occupancy. The event was celebrated with a ritual dedication September 13, 1998 that included music, shofar blowing, hanging of the Mezuzzah, and ceremonial procession during which the torahs were transferred from the ark in the old sanctuary to the new one. A “wedding Ceremony” was also performed to symbolize the marriage of the congregation to the synagogue.
Several other significant changes occurred during this time interval. The Beth El Men’s Club, long dormant, was reactivated in 1993, with Dennis Goldenson as the first of the presidents in the modern era. Renewed interested in this service and social club has resulted in the Men’s Club becoming a vital and active force in the synagogue to this day.
During the presidency of Sheila Catz, the computer systems in the synagogue were updated to a network. The Kol, our synagogue newsletter changed to its current form. In addition, the Pancake Festival, one of sever fund raising events was inaugurated. The festival continues to be successful to date.
The last years of the twentieth century represented a time of turmoil for Beth El, as well. Changes also occurred in personnel. In August 1996, Rabbi Stern left Beth El to become an assistant rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue, the largest Conservative congregation in New York. He was followed by Rabbi Neil Scheindlin, who had first served as rabbi on an interim basis. Beth El was saddened by the sudden death of their beloved cantor, Herman Weisberg in April 1996. In 1999, Beth hired Steve Hecht as Executive Director.
INTO THE NEW CENTURY (2000 AND BEYOND)
The new century came with a series of challenges, not only for the world, but also for Beth El. Rabbi Scheindlin departed in the summer of 2000 and Beth El was once again, without a spiritual leader. Beth El also had to look at the harsh reality of the fact that the capital campaign begun in 1996 had fallen short of its goal to provide a financial cushion for the synagogue. Furthermore, without a rabbi, the prospect of having new members join seemed poor. In a bold, but ultimately wise move, Michael Syme agreed to remain president for another term, something that had never happened before. With his guidance, the synagogue hired Rabbi Alexander Greenbaum as its new spiritual leader. Rabbi Alex, as he is fondly referred to is also married to Rabbi Amy Greenbaum, who also contributes significantly to Beth El, most recently agreeing to serve as interim Education Director. The congregation celebrated the arrival of the Greenbaums on November 16, 2002 with an Installation Shabbat.
The Beth El of the new millennium boasts a modern facility with adequate space to provide for the needs of its diverse congregants. The main sanctuary, which seats 400 can easily be expanded for the High Holidays to seat 1000. The difference between this expansion and that of the old Sufrin Family Sanctuary is that all congregants have a good view of the bima and face the Torah, when it is being read. New acoustics, access for the physically disabled, handicap parking, a new large cloak room, and a new social hall all greet the visitor to Beth El. A refurbished kitchen includes a wall of cabinets custom built by Dr. Richard Daffner and his work crew.
As the congregation continues to grow, so do the demands on the physical plant. Thanks to an active Men’s Club as well as to the House and Grounds Committee, volunteers provide much of the needed maintenance. Beth El has been fortunate over the years to have the commitment of members such as Herman Bertenthal, Leslie Clifford, Marvin Liebson, Ira Ungar, and Dick Daffner who have spent countless hours dealing with routine and emergency matters.
On the ritual observance level, Beth El thrives offering twice daily minyanim Shabbat and holiday services, and junior congregation services. A dependable corps of Torah readers as well as lay prayer leaders conduct services. Younger children in the primary grades enjoy “Saturday Morning Live” services, while the innovative Shabbat morning “Tot Shabbat” caters to preschoolers. The popular Friday evening Family service held monthly focuses on the enlightenment of children. Beth El extends holiday celebrations with special events, such as Shabbat dinners, Hanukkah dinner, Purim Carnival, and second night Pesach Seder.
Special interest and social groups abound to satisfy the needs of men, women, couples, singles, and seniors alike. Beth El Congregation is active in the community, demonstrating both Jewish and inter-faith affiliation. Beth El provided volunteers to staff the rescue shelters during the 2004 floods that devastated parts of the South Hills. The Beth El Men’s club also has an active schedule of activities that include brunches, pasta fest, poker nights, family picnic, and the Beth El Stock Challenge – a fundraiser.
Other major fundraising projects include the Art Auction, Bingo, Dream Auction, Pancake Festival, and the Giving Tree donated by James and Cheryl Snyder in 1991 to help Beth El provide its extensive services. The official bulletin of the synagogue, the Kol is published monthly and sent to all congregants.
Beth El’s children remain a key part of our congregation, as they did in 1917. Beth El Nursery School (BENS) recognizes and values the individuality of each child while fostering awareness of Jewish culture and traditions. The preschool received accreditation from the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs, a status enjoyed by few nursery schools in Pittsburgh. Under the guidance of Linda Hewitt, who succeeded Georgia Hernandez as director in 2003, BENS has prospered and continued to grow. The Sadie and Herman Spiegel Religious School exceeds the standards set by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. The faculty teach 300 children from kindergarten through post-b’nai mitzvah age in Jewish academia. Adult education proves no less valuable with courses ranging from beginning Hebrew through Talmud, Beth El Studies Torah (BEST) weekend, and Torah Weekend. This last event started in the 1960’s, as the Ira R. Messer Memorial Lecture Series is an annual event shared by Beth El and Temple Emanuel and brings in Jewish scholars and academics for a series of lectures.
Beth El has also become a repository of artifacts from other synagogues that no longer exist. The Lazar Balk Chapel contains the original Ark and stained glass windows from the Beechview synagogue. The pews in the chapel are from Tree of Life Synagogue in Monongahela, PA. Memorial plaques from Ohave Israel in Brownsville, PA line the walls of the Balk Chapel. There are two stained glass windows on either side of the bima of the new sanctuary. They were obtained from the structure once housing Temple Rodef Shalom, in Charleroi, PA. The windows date back to 1925.
For nearly a century Beth El Congregation has created and comforted, evoked and edified, consecrated and commanded. One can only conjecture as to the joy this course of events would have brought Rebecca Ruderman. A glance at the present reveals a house of worship that has faithfully preserved the ideas of its founders while welcoming innovation. In the 1978 Dedication Journal, Rabbi Stephen Steindel alluded to the biblical source of the words, “Beth El”. He vividly recounted the passage in which Jacob, solitary and destitute slept on rocky earth. Yet he dreamed of a ladder ascending from earth to heaven where the Lord promised to protect him always. Once awake, Jacob proclaimed the harsh stretch of land to be “none other than the House of G-d”, Beth El.
Whether one’s personal association with Beth El Congregation of the South Hills spans a mere passing of days or generation upon generation, may each member be touched by the commitment of the past, the strength of the present, and the promise of the future. Above all, let Beth el stand ever mindful of its name, and shelter each who enters its gates as a true House of G-d.
It is only fitting that we close our brief history of Beth El with a quote from the program booklet for the congregational Annual Dinner and Dance, May 25, 1945. (Remember, the world was still at war.):
“The Beth El Congregation can take its place among the synagogues of Pittsburgh and be proud of its many achievements, but we most not lose sight of the fact that only through the continued blessing of G-d, have we been able to carry on. May He always pour out a blessing upon us, so that we may go forward, and the seed planted by our women, continue to multiply.”
“Achievement is a pleasant thing
But there is no end to conquering
And wise mensee, that what is done, however fair,
Cannot in any compare, with what is yet to be:
And wise men’s thoughts are ever turned
On secrets that are yet unlearned.”
How true those words ring fifty years later.
Richard H. Daffner, M.D.,F.A.C.R.
October 2005 / Tishri 5706
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