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In rural Pennsylvania, shrinking synagogues find strength in smaller numbers

Sons of Israel synagogue in Dubois, Clearfield County, has only 15 to 20 family units and often only a handful of people for Friday services.

Eight members of the Temple Sons of Israel synagogue in DuBois, Pa., get ready for service on Friday, Nov. 8.
Eight members of the Temple Sons of Israel synagogue in DuBois, Pa., get ready for service on Friday, Nov. 8.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

DuBOIS, Pa. — A rusty black pickup truck with a whitetail deer sticker in the back window sat parked, illegally, on the sidewalk outside the Sons of Israel synagogue on a Friday night. No one was around to complain. The plain brick building is wedged between typical, four-squared Pennsylvania homes, still decorated for Halloween in this rural Clearfield County town that lost nearly half its population over the last century.

With minutes to spare, Rabbi Bruce Gottlieb pulled up in his minivan for the monthly 7 p.m. Shabbat service. The synagogue runs on “Jewish time,” one congregation member joked. But it’s a miracle that Sons of Israel runs at all — with fewer than 10 active families.

Gottlieb, who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, drives three hours from Cleveland (yes, in Ohio), where he lives and works as a therapist, to lead the service in DuBois. Sons of Israel is small enough that many members are on the same text thread. The congregation has held spaghetti dinners to help fix the roof and online fund-raisers to keep the lights on. That’s why Gottlieb doesn’t mind the 360-mile round trip.

“This group is truly, deeply committed,” he said before the service. “They could have easily folded five or six years ago.”

Sons of Israel serves Clarion, Clearfield, Jefferson, and the particularly rural Elk and Cameron Counties in Western Pennsylvania. Approximately 15 to 20 families are on the register. The closest synagogue to Sons of Israel is in Altoona, nearly 60 miles to the south. Bradford, 70 miles north in McKean County, by the New York border, also has a small congregation. Many other synagogues, including in Punxsutawney and New Castle, have folded or merged, Gottlieb said.

“Between us and Harrisburg, State College is it,” he said.

Seventy-three percent of Pennsylvanians are Christian, with Judaism and Islam each accounting for just 1% of the population, according to the Pew Research Center. But while Christianity blankets the state, Judaism has slowly moved back toward the cities and suburbs. The Association of Religion Data Archives listed 49 Jewish residents in Clearfield County, based on data compiled in 2010; they account for .06% of the county’s population of 79,388. Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, and Philadelphia each had just over 16,700 adherents, less than 1.5% of the populations there.

The decline of Judaism in rural and small-town America plays directly into the decline of the communities themselves, the industries that prospered in them and dried up over the last century. DuBois was a former coal and timber town whose population peaked in 1920 at 13,681. Jews immigrated here from Russia and Lithuania in the late 1800s. That’s when Sons of Israel was built.

“The ones that came here were poor and most of them were peddlers, but they eventually became the merchant class and opened a lot of retail establishments in DuBois after World War I,” said Richard Levine, a retired attorney.

Levine grew up across the street from Sons of Israel. His father ran Levine Brothers, a clothing store, on Long Avenue. He says the opening of the DuBois Mall in 1972 hurt businesses like his father’s and accelerated the decline of the town’s Jewish community.

“The Jewish population died off, their kids went to college, and they never came back,” said Levine, who now lives in Pittsburgh.

Jo Rickard moved to the area in 1987 from Harrisburg, where her school gave students days off for the High Holidays. Back then, she said, Sons of Israel had 40 families.

Rabbi David Fine, of the Union for Reform Judaism, advises congregations considering mergers or collaborations. He said the fates of rural Pennsylvania towns, the rise and fall of their Jewish populations, are similar to others across the country. Butte, Mont., home to valuable copper mines, once had two or three synagogues and a kosher butcher, he said. The city’s first mayor was Jewish. It now has one temple.

Fine travels the country visiting synagogues in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington state, where he lives, and he finds something valuable in their small size.

“There’s a lot of life in them,” he said. “Their growth and vitality are not numerical. That’s not the way to measure the success of a congregation. It’s the depth of religious engagement and the depth of relationships.”

Temple Beth El, in Bradford, has no rabbi, said congregation president Kimberly Weinberg. In the past, rabbis came in from New York, Ohio, and Florida to lead services there. Now that role is filled by laypeople, usually Weinberg herself. The synagogue, which downsized to a smaller building, has 25 family units, but 10 of them don’t live in Bradford.

“When I say ‘don’t live in Bradford,’ I mean they live in Colorado or Ohio,” she said.

Temple Beth El experienced some anti-Semitic graffiti about a decade ago, Weinberg said, but otherwise, there have been no problems with the surrounding community.

Last year, after the mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Gottlieb spoke with the DuBois police department about security at Sons of Israel.

“There was one officer who didn’t know where we were,” the rabbi said.

At Sons of Israel, which seats 85, every body matters on a cold Friday night. The prayer candles were lit around 7:30, and after Gottlieb donned his prayer shawl, he began services for four adults and four children. One woman who brought three children was not Jewish but had expressed interest in the religion.

Gottlieb spoke about the strength of community, about putting the good of many over what’s best for one person.

“You won’t find, in any city, the type of environment and the relationships we have here,” he said. “There’s not the same urgency.”

Jessica Mondi, who helped organize a GoFundMe to help Sons of Israel pay bills, said adversity is part of the beauty of this small, plain synagogue. Younger members use Skype to prepare for bar and bat mitzvahs or take online classes, never easy when rural internet service is notoriously bad. Kids travel across the state for camps. Many had off school for the opening day of hunting season but not for the High Holidays.

“When you’re the minority in an area that’s not heavily populated, or even remotely heavily populated, for me, it’s making sure my children have that foundation,” Mondi said. “It takes effort. It takes real effort.”